Rainbow Diving…Our return to Nha Trang

Having completed a try dive with Rainbow Divers, we had made the decision to invest some of our budget in attempting our PADI Open Water Diving qualification. It’s quite a considerable amount of money when you are budgeting for ongoing travel, but the chance to get this under our belts with a team that we were familiar with, and in excellent diving conditions was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So, with considerable excitement, we left Cat Ba and returned to Nha Trang.
It’s a nice feeling to return to places, to arrive without apprehension and having a little more understanding of where you are going, how much a taxi should cost-and where to get the best food! We even returned to the same hotel, where we were greeted with recognition and an appreciation of our return business-so far so good.
We made our way straight to Crazy Kims, the bar from which Rainbow Divers operated. It was clear that the ‘season’ was in full swing now-the dive centre was a hive of activity with many sunburnt smiling faces returning from their day on the boat.
We got ourselves booked in for our PADI course, and discovered that we would be taught by the instructor that had taken us for our try dives-a Dutch guy called Quentin. This was quite the result, we had both felt extremely comfortable with him on our initial dives, and he had done wonders to reassure Jo of any apprehension left over from her previous diving experiences.
Just to give you the background, Jo had started a PADI course in New Zealand a number of years back, and had a bad experience where she ended up panicking in the water-so not only was this the task of learning the necessary skills, Jo would also be trying to overcome some considerable fear.

The course would be over four days-the first day in the classroom doing all of the theory and written exams; day two we would be going to the nearby navy diving pool for instruction in various underwater techniques; then the final two mornings we would be out on the boat doing our four open water dives-very exciting indeed.

Day one in the pool and all was well-I won’t bore you with all the techniques that you cover, there is loads of information around on the internet if you’re interested-I would suggest further reading on the PADI website.
All was well, that is until we reached the final test-the full mask removal. This is something which proves to be a common difficulty for many people who do these courses, and unfortunately it was something that Jo was struggling with. Every other technique had been completed with no issue, but when it came to removing the mask Jo just couldn’t stop herself from inhaling water, and rising to the surface in a minor panic. It was gut wrenching, Quentin regretfully informed us that Jo would not be able to dive unless she got this skill nailed, but the more she tried the more frustrating it proved.
Feeling something of a heavy heart, we returned to the hotel to blast the internet to find others that struggled with the same thing-and to hopefully find some way to solve the issue. It was with some reassurance that we discovered how common an issue it was-although no simple answers, there were a few suggestions which seemed to be worth thinking about when we would be getting out on the boat the next morning.

And so we were off, our inaugural dive trip!

And so we were off, our inaugural dive trip!

First dive site, Madonna Rock...Named so because apparently they resemble a part of Madonna's anatomy....

First dive site, Madonna Rock…Named so because apparently they resemble a part of Madonna’s anatomy….

Arriving at our first dive site and we had prepped our kit and done our pre dive checks, it was time to get into the water. As we went to make our first descent, Jo’s demons returned and she just could not go ahead with the dive. She was gutted, understandably, and returned to the boat with the option of doing some snorkelling while we continued with the course. It was horrible thinking of Jo as I continued down to the dive site, I knew that she would be upset and frustrated and I wanted to get back on deck-but obviously that wasn’t an option. 20m visibility and a cacophony of colours invading my mask, the coral and fish giving me some other worldly vista…but only for brief moments. You see, I am still always aware of the fear, the fear that I am underwater and I need to concentrate on doing all that I have been instructed to do. Every now and again, I would catch glimpses of this fantastical environment, but for the most part I was consumed with self awareness and, indeed, self preservation…….And Quentin, hand signals giving me instruction, and his backside leading the way.
The first dive complete and we returned to the boat to set sail for our next dive site-Jo was in surprisingly good spirits and being a lot more positive than I would have been…Whether that was a direct result of cake consumption or not I’m not sure, but she was handling things brilliantly. At the second site I continued my course and Jo got involved with some snorkelling, the excellent visibility treating Jo to more of a coral colour show than I managed to muster-with my blinkered concentration only allowing me glimpses of the world around me!

On our return journey Quentin came to debrief us and seemed resigned to finishing Jo’s course with a program of snorkelling for the next day-this was a desperately disappointing conversation to close the morning off. Having returned to shore and gotten back to our hotel, we decided to approach Rainbow Divers and ask them to get Jo back in the Navy pool to get her skills finalised on the last day. Given that we had paid for the PADI course, an afternoon of snorkelling wouldn’t be enough to get out of it, and getting over the hurdle of the face mask removal would obviously be of more benefit. Quentin agreed to help us out and take Jo back to the pool for a one to one session the next day-hopefully nailing all the necessary skills. Somewhat happier with the situation, we ate and went to hit the sack early ready for the final day in the water. Lo and behold when we got back to the hotel there was a phone call from Quentin, the following day wouldn’t be possible to take Jo to the pool-so he wanted her to come out on the boat again and we would find ‘pool like conditions’ where Jo could try the skills once again. On the one hand it was great that Jo would be out on the boat with me again, on the other it added a certain amount of uncertainty back into the equation. Little did we know that this twist of fate would prove to be the absolute best thing that could have happened!

Out on the boat for the final time and my penultimate dive served to tick the final boxes on the skills that I needed to demonstrate to pass my PADI qualification-I had done it, just one ‘fun dive’ left where I would be ‘just diving’ for the first time.

Quentin giving me the international approval sign of a high five!

Quentin giving me the international approval sign of a high five!

PADI Jones, ready for action!

PADI Jones, ready for action!

Now it was time for Jo to get back in the water and find a spot to try and get the mask removal nailed. As Quentin and Jo swam a bit further towards shore, I took the opportunity to do some snorkelling myself while I waited. Jo seemed to be in the water for an absolute age, by this time I had returned to deck and had immersed myself in a program of coffee drinking and cake eating! Soon enough there was movement at the back of the boat and I made my way to meet Jo as she returned to deck. Broad smiles on their faces seemed to be a good indicator, not only had Jo managed to nail the full mask removal first time (plus another two times!), but Quentin had also gotten her to complete the rest of the required skills. Basically Jo completely nailed it! Quite obviously delighted, Quentin then informed us that he would be more than happy for Jo to join us on our final dive. She would not take away the final PADI accreditation, but she would only have to complete three more open water dives to finish the course. It seemed a far cry from the disappointment of the previous day, and taking to the waters together for the final dive was a superb way to finish our time here.

RESULT!!!!!

RESULT!!!!!

Pretty darn happy with the way things turned out!

Pretty darn happy with the way things turned out!

Dive buddies!

Dive buddies!

Summarising our experience, Rainbow Divers were excellent and the diving in Nha Trang was wonderful. Quentin deserves special recognition for his patience and effort-we are now both proud owners of dive log books, and we are looking forward to finding somewhere else in the world to get Jo’s final three dives ticked off.

This would also be our final act in Vietnam, for now we return to Cambodia, and a six week volunteer teaching post in a Cambodian province.

Cat Ba and the karsts of Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay…Wikipedia ‘facts’:

Hạ Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem

Possibly the most iconic and well known of Vietnamese landscapes, we were set and excited to do our own exploration of Ha Long Bay. After Angkor Wat, this part of the trip was one of my most eagerly awaited sights-ever since my first encounter with Scaramanga’s Lair in The Man With The Golden Gun I have always dreamed of visiting these shored. Having perused countless blogs and travel magazines with their stories of wonder at this geological spectacle, it was now time for us to discover them for ourselves.
We had decided to go to the island of Cat Ba and explore the area from there, resisting the urge to simply organise a package trip from Hanoi and fly through someone else’s itinerary-we made our way to the superbly named Ali Baba’s and prepared for a few days of adventure.
Ali Baba’s was the top recommended guest house that we could find, with particular plaudits for the tours that were arranged by the owner. At just $5 a night with picture perfect views of the harbour from our room, initial reactions were positive to say the least , and soon we had arranged our boat trip for the next day-a tour of the islands, some kayaking, potential rock climbing and a cliff jump-it all sounded spectacular.

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I'm sure you'll agree?!

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I’m sure you’ll agree?!

Wandering around the town of Cat Ba, and it certainly seemed like we were there ‘off season’. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, and the town had the feeling of a place treading water until the next deluge of tourists. For us this proved to be little problem, we weren’t here to party and there were enough places open to give us quite the choice on food options, but the atmosphere lacked a little.

Next morning prepped and ready for a day out on the boat, the weather was a little overcast, but nothing to grumble about, certainly considering what we’re used to in the UK! Before long we were on a bus with about another 10 people who were on the trip, everyone quite obviously keen for the off-within 30 minutes we were on the boat and away-cameras at the ready.

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

First stop, the originally named Monkey Island. As you would expect, the clue is in the title and we eagerly disembarked to explore the island to see whether we could spot some of the resident primates. As is so often the case in Asia, don’t expect the route forward to be entirely clear, so we blindly followed our guide up a surprisingly challenging climb to the peak of the island. It may surprise you to know that neither Jo or I are blessed with the rock balancing ability of a mountain goat, quite the opposite. So as we took our time and made sure there were always three points of contact between the rocks and us-we were quite put to shame by those ‘more youthful’ teetering on the very summit for ‘edge of the world selfies’
Seemingly the weather had affected the monkeys, hidden away nowhere to be seen, but no bother given the stunning surrounding vistas to enjoy.

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From here a meandering tour through various karst structures dotted all around us-we were heading to an area where we could take some time out to immerse ourselves in the surrounding beauty on kayak. The views were stunning for the whole of the journey, as you’ll be able to judge from the photos:

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Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

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Excitedly we gallop down the gangplank to the platform where the kayaks were waiting for us-although the first thing that we encountered was something quite unexpected. the fishermen that also use the platform had caught an absolutely massive fish. I mean this thing was huge. It was being kept in a little area under the platform, looming to the surface of the water every now and again and eyeballing us-it wouldn’t surprise me if it was just mentally logging everyone’s faces for revenge purposes, with plans for an imminent escape.

Having been distracted enough, we got presented with our two person kayak only to realise that we would be having to accommodate one more. Don’t you just hate that in Asia, always room for one more?! Fortunately this time the plus one was a crab ‘happily’ tucked away by my feet. As long as he didn’t have any desires on my toes, we’d get along just fine.

'Captain-we have a stowaway'

‘Captain-we have a stowaway’

Time to get where the big boats canny

Time to get where the big boats canny

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos...!

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos…!

A good couple of hours on the water, and the acquisition of another one of them old life skills! Our guide teaching us how to fish off the side of his canoe with a line and hook, using locally sourced mussels as bate to effortlessly pluck a fish for lunch from the waters. First time was great, but then we jinxed him-with all future efforts ending with failure. Still, 30% of the time it works every time….
Lunch was served back on the boat and it was a delight-as so often on these excursions it’s the meals where you expect very little, that you discover a lot-and this was one of those occasions.
Next port of call was a small deserted beach-and time for Jo and I to prove our metal as the only passengers willing to jump off the boat and swim over to the shore. The water was fresh, invigorating, made my skin tingle like I was in a bath full of Tiger Balm. as we looked round us we truly appreciated a special moment. The deep green water giving birth to the jagged rock outcrops around us, seeing the surroundings from a different perspective-it was an exhilarating feeling.
The next challenge proved to be something beyond us, the rock climb and cliff jump. I was quite bullish about the idea, and Jo was pretty pre-determined too-but when it came down to it I simply did not have the skills or guts to attempt the ‘climb and jump’! In fact the only person to do it was Ali Baba himself, treating us to a wonderful exhibition of his skills-scaling the side of the rock effortlessly, gecko like in his movement-before taking a moment, and leaping off-to our obvious glee!

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By this point we had formed friendships with others on the boat, particularly a Canadian guy called George and a Norwegian lady called Ulla. Both had been travelling extensively, with some colourful and insightful tales to share, so the rest of the journey we enjoyed engaging conversation, blessed with the most picturesque of backdrops.

Somewhat exhausted we returned to shore, found ourselves a suitable spring roll vendor, and wrapped up the evening quick time. It was once again time to take to two wheels and explore our locale, we had found an easy hike that we could do, and the sights of ‘Hospital Cave’ and the Cat Ba Cannon Station-offering the most spectacular views on the island they say. I say ‘easy hike’, but like most things in Asia, nothing is easy in this heat. It was an odd entrance into the Cat Ba National Park, you enter down an avenue which eventually reveals that it is the home of a semi abandoned village-some people still there trying to sell you a drink, or a t-shirt, but, on the whole, deserted.

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As we made our way towards the start of the hike, we intermittently passed by people on the way down….Who I have to say were a pretty grumpy and negative bunch! Most of them advised us to turn back, warning us how difficult and slippery the trail was. Usually I find that people are more encouraging and tell you how it’s worth the effort! No putting us off, and we increased pace a little to see what would be in store for us. As it turns out, it was absolutely fine-I do not know what ell the other people were on about! By good fortune we bumped into George once again on our way up-and promptly made dinner plans, always good to share your experiences with people. At the top and were once again bathing in views of misty mountains and jungle stretching out into the distance.

The goal!

The goal!

The 'achievement' pose

The ‘achievement’ pose

'Top of the World' pose!

‘Top of the World’ pose!

Misty mountains

Misty mountains

One of the locals

One of the locals

We descended from the peak like veritable mountain goats and mounted our trusty steed to hit the coastal road on our return to Cat Ba. Prompted by the recommendation of views that were quite spectacular, and that it was well worth going a little out of the way. Off we set with camera at the ready and high hopes for further enchantment from Ha Long Bay…..until we found the road to be blocked by a landslide-talk about anti-climax! Not that we’re complaining, we were still lucky enough to be scooting around a gorgeous Vietnamese island after all.

ONWARDS I tell thee!

ONWARDS I tell thee!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

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During the Indochina wars Cat Ba was a strategic look-out point, and as such was targeted by heavy bombing. Local residents were often forced into hiding among the Island’s many caves, and one such cave was to be our next stop on our route home. Hospital Cave was a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the Vietnam War and was also used as a safe house for VC commanders. I wasn’t really prepared for what we eventually found-I was expecting a cave with a few rooms carved out-what we actually encountered was a three story fortified hospital inside a mountain…No slap dash construction here-this place was extremely impressive.

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

It would be foolish to claim to fully understand the conditions that people had to cope with-but for sure here you get an idea of the ingenuity and adaptability of people in the most testing of times.
From the hospital we set about heading to Cannon Fort, quite the opposite in terms of function. Strategic watch point with four old bunkers, a helicopter landing station, a number of big ground-to-air munitions, as well stunning views from a peak 177 meters above Cat Ba town. From here you could get a 360 degree view of the island, a bird’s eye view of the town and the harbours, and of course the many limestone karsts that form the unique landscape found in Lan Ha Bay. It was the perfect way to draw our visit here to a conclusion. Now a hop, skip, jump (or bus, boat, bus, bus, taxi!) back to Hanoi, and then to make our return to Nha Trang to attempt our PADI Open Water Diving qualifications.

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

360 degrees of WOW!

360 degrees of WOW!

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

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Hello Hanoi

We now readied ourselves for a journey of considerable distance, we were set to travel from Rach Gia in the south, all the way to Hanoi. Not for the faint hearted, this was set to be a total journey time of 42 hours!
We began our journey with a 5 hour night bus from Rach Gia to Ho Chi Minh, easy….Or so we thought. It transpired that the ‘night bus’ was actually a mini bus, and any thoughts of being able to sleep for this portion of the journey were well and truly out the window. Hurtling along at breakneck speed, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 5AM and headed for the train station to see whether we could get our onward travel sorted. There was still a massive amount of locals travelling because of the New Year, so we just had to head to the station and hope that we would be able to get tickets for same day travel. First up was trying to negotiate local buses at 5AM, not the easiest of things when you’re overtired and chaos is king. Despite our best efforts to persuade people that we wanted a bus to the train station, we ended up on a bus to the main backpackers area….Right direction, just not exactly where we wanted to be, the benefit being that we could revisit our favourite coffee shop for one last banana caramel shake-every cloud and all that!

Lack of sleep making us feel (and look no doubt) like zombies, we managed to get ourselves to the train station and onto the next train to Hanoi, second class sleeper with aircon-nearly perfect, apart from the fact that they only had upper berths available, so you end up lacking a table for the oh so important card games!. Still, we were booked on the train and now just a couple of hours waiting around before we settle in our carriage for the 36 hours journey! Not wanting to let the opportunity pass, Jo took the initiative and promptly fell asleep in the rail station café while we were waiting for the train-it would seem that just waiting to get on a form of transportation is now excuse enough to snooze!
Rousing Jo from her slumber, it was time to get on the train and we soon settled into our top bunks. In Vietnam the first class travel is a four berth cabin, so you’re always sharing with another couple of travellers.

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The train is certainly more locally used than by traveller in my opinion, whether that is down to the costs for a foreigner ticket, or from a bit of mis-information, I don’t know. We were constantly being told how difficult it was to buy train tickets, and to date we hadn’t struggled once-and in some instances the journey was cheaper than by bus. However, it was the crazy time around Tet, and so I’m not sure of the price comparisons at standard times. If you’re going to travel in Vietnam, try the train for a journey if you can budget for it-it’s great!
I would be lying if I told you that the time just breezed by on the train, it didn’t/doesn’t/never will. It’s a massive journey, and amusements that you find early on gradually turn into minor irritants. Things like negotiating the length of the train to get to the restaurant car, falling all over the other passengers and all-so-frequent food carts. First couple of times it’s a right giggle….By the time you’re walking the gauntlet for the 6th and 7th time, with minimal sleep, the novelty wears thin. For me there is a definite apprehension of not knowing my location, I strain to try and work out the names of stations that we pass through-most of the time unsuccessfully…A mild cabin fever sets in as I fix my gaze out of the window, yearning for the arrival of my destination, but fully aware that there is at least another 6 hours to go.

We arrived in Hanoi like drunks out of the holding cell, bleary eyed, disorientated and discombobulated. We fixed our gaze on the coffee shop opposite the train station, drawing us in with it’s bright lights and promise of caffeine…And cake!

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Sugar and caffeine levels replenished, we took the oh so familiar option of walking, trying to find our way through the city for the very first time. We tried to cheat using Google maps, but of course that didn’t work and we got lost-we were at the address, but our guesthouse was nowhere to be found….And as it turns out, not very close to where the address was at all!

Through many a broken English conversation and bumbling about we happened upon our guesthouse, dumped our bags and set out for our initial city reconnaissance mission for eateries. Standard fare of noodle soup to beat back the hunger, and not long before the yearning for a proper bed overcame us both, and we hightailed it for slumber.
Waking in the Old City and the Lonely Planet walking tour was our guide for the morning. Given our location, it made best sense to do it backwards and off we went, starting at the cathedral. As fortune would have it, on our route to the cathedral we found something of a holy grail, a funky little Bhan Mi joint serving the most delicious bread based meaty treats-superb fuel for the street stomping that lay ahead.

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The Old City in Hanoi is my favourite city of our travels so far. At first it’s pretty confusing, traffic laden and chaotic, but soon you see patterns in the city, the layout starts to materialise in your mind and it makes a little more sense. This happened extremely swiftly for me in Hanoi, and accelerated the affections I was starting to feel towards the place. We didn’t necessarily do a lot in Hanoi-just explored the city, took in the pace of the local life in the capital, found hidden markets in small dark alleyways.
In fact I doubt that we saw much of the city at all, just a portion of it-but up popped the question of whether or not I could see myself living there, and the answer is yes. Moreso than the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok for sure, and Phnom Penh can just be a little to much hard work and Vientiane is a little too sedate, Hanoi seems to strike a nice balance.

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The guesthouse had not lived up to reviews, and so after a couple of nights we decided to upgrade for a little luxury. All hail the Blue River II hotel-an air-conditioned, en suite, hot water, comfy bed extravaganza…Breakfast included, $10..Ace! From here we began to formulate our plan for the main reason for the trek up North-the word famous, postcard picture perfect Halong Bay. Up for the challenge of taking the local route, we made our decision to go and spend some time on the island of Cat Ba, located on the edge of the Halong Bay UNESCO World heritage site. The local journey was something of a giggle looking back, just a funny sequence of transport transfers:

1. Taxi to bus station
2. Bus destined for ferry location, drops us in middle of road
3. Bus appears as if by magic and picks us up in middle of road, takes us to another bus.
4. Now we’re headed to the ferry-seemingly driving through the worlds biggest unfinished port!
5. We’re herded on to back of boat where we sit on plastic stools, then the boat takes us to the island, down a tributary and to a seemingly hidden bus stop.
6. Final bus, this was it-take us to Cat Ba town.

In the middle of all of this, we have influenced another seemingly confused passenger to get off the last bus with us for the transfer to the ferry port, it then transpires that he should have stayed on the other bus and we are now looking back sympathetically at his panic stricken face….Yes, you could probably say that this was our fault. Fortunately proved to be no problem, the bus simply swings round another street, drop him off where he is instructed to sprint down the street towards several buses, and catch the correct one. I hope he made it, nice guy!

Up next for us, touring the postcards!

Tết take Tu…..

Somewhat later than planned, we finally managed to negotiate our exit from Ho Chi Minh and make our way to Rạch Giá in Kien Giang province near the Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. Here we would be meeting up with Tu, someone we had met in a backpackers hostel in Vientiane, and who had invited us to stay with his family for Vietnamese New Year.
Tu is one of the friendliest people you are ever likely to meet, and his invitation to his family home, and indeed his brother’s wedding, came within a few hours of knowing us. At first my Britishness set alarm bells ringing…. ‘Why would he invite us to his home?’, ‘what’s in it for him?’, ‘should I really trust this person who I hardly know?!’
I have to admit, these questions rattled round in the back of my mind quite frequently, we’re so used to being ‘on guard’ at home that it’s difficult to let go of your trust issues and just go with it-but that’s exactly what we did, and it turned out to be an incredible and fulfilling experience.

The bus from Ho Chi Minh was hot, cramped and longer than expected-but that’s par for the course and we suffered in good spirits, excited about what was in store for us.
We eventually arrived at around 8PM and set about trying to locate Tu, as it turns out he had been waiting with his friend at the bus station for the whole day, and was on hand to take us into Rach Gia for a catch up, some food, and to stay the evening in a guesthouse they had already found for us. We soon found out that Rạch Giá is the capital of Kien Giang province, and is something of a Vietnamese tourist destination, Tu’s family lived about an hour’s drive away from the centre.
Fed and watered, we were ushered back to the guesthouse and told to rest before setting off to see his family the next day.
Bright and early Tu and his friend arrived to pick us up and set out for breakfast followed by a coffee to get the day’s activities underway. It became apparent that our arrival had been talked up by Tu, and some of his friends, his sister, nephew and brother in law came to meet us. Mostly people weren’t able to speak English, and our Vietnamese is non-existent, so Tu acted as translator as they all were keen to talk and ask questions, and like Tu everyone made a huge effort with us.

Rach Gia morning glory!

Rach Gia morning glory!

Tu!

Tu!

Saying our goodbyes, off we went into the Vietnamese province that Tu called home-we had no idea of what was in store for the day ahead.
Driving out of the city of Rach Gia it became apparent that we were heading to a very different Vietnam to the one that we had experienced so far. Soon we were traveling along single track pathways alongside a myriad of waterways connecting various farms and their rice fields. Even though it was still early, it was already intensely hot and it wouldn’t be long before I started to feel the discomfort of sunburn on my legs! Jo didn’t seem to be suffering from the heat so much, in fact-she actually fell asleep on the back of her motorbike, head-butting the driver in the act! An extreme demonstration in her ability to sleep on pretty much any transportation method-something that would be repeated a number of times over the next couple of days!

Eventually we arrived at Tu’s family home set amongst fish lakes and rice fields-it was absolutely stunning. Our arrival was met with quite the fanfare, and as it turned out Tu’s uncles, neighbours and family friends had all come to meet us as well. It wasn’t long before we were all sat round eating lunch, drinking Vietnamese vodka and getting to know each other-it was absolutely amazing….Worth noting that when you drink vodka with the family, it is one shot glass that is passed around. The person who drinks then nominates a ‘drinking partner’ for that shot, and you drink and pass on. Needless to say, Jo and I were the subject of many drinking partner nominations, and soon were feeling the effects!
For the first time on our trip we felt Michael Palin’esque, managing to communicate with each other despite not being able to speak a common language. You couldn’t wish for better hosts, the food was fantastic, and the volume of laughter steadily increased as the vodka continued to be consumed-my hairy arms and white skin being a topic of some quite considerable hilarity! Before long Tu’s father was insisting that we return to stay with the family overnight, an offer that we simply could not refuse. We were delighted at the prospect of spending some more time at his home.

First 'family' lunch

First ‘family’ lunch

With our plans for a return visit confirmed, it was time to move onto Tu’s brother’s house, who had married the previous week and had invited us to his wedding despite never meeting us! Unfortunately we missed the ceremony, but it would seem that celebrations were ongoing as we were greeted with another gathering of people, food and drink. This time it was beer rather than vodka, and this time we got pulled into the Vietnamese tradition of downing drinks on demand….I think they were trying to get us drunk!

Lunch with Tu's brother and friends

Lunch with Tu’s brother and friends

It was at this point that we saw the first of what would be many ‘real life living’ methods.
The ability to catch, prepare and cook your food is something that we have lost in the UK. Having been molly coddled by supermarkets, buying our meat nicely prepared and wrapped, both Jo and I are somewhat lacking in these real life living methods. At Tu’s brothers house we enjoyed a lesson in fresh fish preparation. As we arrived one of the guys promptly went out to the waterway in front of the house and harvested the fishing net that was suspended there, returning with a bucket full of freshwater fish. From there the fish were taken to the back of the house, where they were cooked simply by impaling on a stick and covering with burning hay for an impromptu barbeque-I kid you not it, it was both ingenious and delicious! Second lunch of the day dealt with, and a fair few more beverages under the belt, and it was time to test the balance once more on the back of the motorbikes, and head back to Rạch Giá. It had been a great first day meeting all of Tu’s friends and family, they were all so friendly and eager for us to share in all that they had.

We got back to our guesthouse around six o clock and parted company with Tu for the evening, giving us some time to have a mooch around Rạch Giá. This in itself lead to quite a funny episode, given that Rạch Giá is a Vietnamese holiday destination, none of the menus in the restaurants have any English translation, and very few locals spoke any English whatsoever. This makes ordering dinner somewhat difficult, and so with the gung ho attitude of just picking something random on the menu, we ended up with an eel hot pot for dinner that eve! Just to explain a little further, a hot pot is a dish in Vietnam where you get served a large pan with stock in it, on a burner of some description, you are then provided with a number of ingredients which you then add to the stock to cook, and then you serve with noodles. On the whole it is a great way to eat-but cooking with eel for the first time wasn’t exactly the highlight of our culinary discovery….Still, we gave it a go and can safely say that we will not be ordering that again in a hurry! Little did we know that this was just going to be the tip of the iceberg when it came to new eating experiences…

Somewhat earlier than the expected 10AM start, Tu arrived at our hotel door at a sporting 8AM prompting us to spring into action, pack, wash, have breakfast and high tail it out of our guesthouse. We headed back out of town and into the province to spend the day with Tu’s family and friends, before spending the evening at his house. The journey was something of a shocker-the previous days’ hour and a half on the back of a scooter was about the limit in terms of comfort-this time we were in for an epic three hour adventure along the various watercourses of Kien Giang Province. Again seemingly not so much of a problem for Jo, who took the opportunity to snooze once again….Although seeing the shock on her face following one of her ‘micro snoozes’ and you realise that perhaps this wasn’t the most relaxing of experiences…More terrifying! Turns out that our first destination was a family friends house, Tu had only been there once before, and finding it was proving to be challenging. In the midst of all of this, we were hurtling over bridges, Jo got whisked off while Tu and I waited on the road so that her ‘driver’ could change clothes, and we acquired a gift hamper for the family-vodka included obviously-as is tradition at New Year in Vietnam.

Eventually we made it, pretty numb from the journey, but just in time to see the lunch being prepared. I’m not sure what type of bird it was, I think that it may have been similar to a stalk, but I can be certain of the fact that we had never eaten it before. Anyway, we had arrived just as two of these birds had been slaughtered, and I was promptly invited to assist with the plucking of the feathers-time to get a bit hands on. My contribution to the plucking over, and leaving the gutting of the bird to the experts, we were invited into the house to have a look at their ‘store room’, where to our amazement were another three of these ‘stalk-like’ birds, alive, just stood there…Not to mention the many chickens and chicks running around-this was fresh food at its most extreme! Back outside and the men had started digging around at a root in the garden, a large bright purple potato like root-which would be added to the stew that was starting to boil on the fire-literally getting all the ingredients from their surroundings, a brilliant lesson in how people live so efficiently here.

Preparation for lunch begins

Preparation for lunch begins

Before long the stew was ready, and an area was cleared for us all to sit down and eat together. A notable difference in attitude towards consumption of meat is that in Vietnam nothing is wasted-the whole bird is used and enjoyed immensely. Tu has quite the appetite for the things that we discard at home-as we found ourselves tucking into the neck of the bird! The meal was delicious, even if we had no idea what it was that we had eaten, and to top things off nicely we got invited to join them in a glass of a very special vodka.
Out came the following bottle, containing said special vodka. It would seem what was special about it, is that the bottle has a snake and a millipede fermenting in it, resulting in a pungent, thick, treacle like beverage…Which apparently is very good for you, so they say.

Special vodka

Special vodka

Feeling obligated to join in with the festivities, Jo and I had ourselves a glass and it was……Strong. Not the most pleasant drinks I’ve ever had, more of an elderflower and blackcurrant Pimms man myself, but it definitely got the heart pumping-much to the amusement of those around us.
It was time again to mount our trusty steeds and head off for Tu’s home once again-where further culinary exploration was sure to await us. Sure enough, upon arrival the wheels were in motion to start preparing the next meal-it’s a perpetual task it would seem. It wasn’t long before Tu was out on a boat herding the ducks so that we could catch the main provider for our evening meal-certainly these ducks would be classed as ‘Free Range’ in the UK.

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I don’t think that it is ever an easy task to catch a duck that is running for its life, but with little hilarity our fare was caught and in no time he was put to the sword for preparation. This time we were both given the unenviable task of plucking the feathers, and boy what a task that was-it took ages! I’m pretty sure it was something to do with our technique, but these things get better with practice and soon the duck was ready to be butchered.
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Again, no wastage here-everything was cleaned and separated and added to the pot. We continued to help with the prep of the vegetables harvested from the surrounding area, Tu’s mother and grandmother really encouraging us to learn more, and taking some delight in the gusto in which we were approaching our tasks. Before long a feast had been constructed from the single pot and open fire-something of an accomplishment in our eyes, but really just par for the course here.
While all of this was going on, various uncles and neighbours and other friends had arrived in readiness for the evening gathering.

As if we hadn’t had challenges enough on the food and drink stakes-as we settled down to dinner one of the first things that was put in our bowl was a balut…If, like me, you have no idea what balut is-quite simply it is a developing duck embryo. Yeah, that’s right…A partially formed duck chick boiled in the shell. The taste wasn’t bad at all, quite the opposite-the difficulty is the concept, it’s something very far removed from what we are used to back in good old Blighty! New culinary experiences coming thick and fast now-and Jo was presented with the ducks head to chow down on. It came as a bit of a surprise because at first Jo thought that she was getting passed a nice piece of thigh, but no, it was the head! As Jo proceeded to devour, I was passed the chicken feet to eat-a rather clumsy affair, and pretty tame in the scheme of things, but a new food trial all the same.
I must stress here that this is just a couple of the highlights from the more obscure items on the menu-the meal in its entirety was absolutely delicious, Tu and his family being absolutely faultless hosts.

The head of the household, Tu's grandmother

The head of the household, Tu’s grandmother

Jo with Tu's mother

Jo with Tu’s mother

The shot glass gets passed around the table

The shot glass gets passed around the table

A wonderful dinner is served

A wonderful dinner is served

Once again the vodka was brought out to round things off nicely, and before we knew it we were readying ourselves for slumber. As is the common theme, Tu’s family could not do enough for us and we found ourselves set up on his parents sleeping platform-it wasn’t long before we had passed out for the evening.

Morning came, and so did the realisation of how attractive mosquitos find Westerners…We had both been ravaged during the night, and my back resembled a bad case of chicken pox! It’s nigh on impossible to avoid getting bitten, but never before had I been bitten so often in one evening. Still, it was nothing to take the sheen off what was a truly fantastic experience, and the morning vista that greeted us helped to stow any feelings of discomfort well and truly to the back of our minds.

Sunrise in the province-magical

Sunrise in the province-magical

As dawn breaks

As dawn breaks

Once again the food preparation was underway, and we set about going to visit some of the neighbours with Tu’s grandmother. Again the experience made somewhat comical with the lack of English spoken, but the warmth with which we were greeted was quite wonderful. We took some time to do some more exploring of the surrounding area, and to marvel at the simplicity and practicality of the Vietnamese locals-demonstrated quite brilliantly with this bridge over one of the waterways.

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Panoramic view of the setting

Panoramic view of the setting

Another wonderful meal was presented to us for lunch, and far too quickly our time of departure had come upon us. The experience of staying with Tu’s family was absolutely magical, the warmth, friendliness, and inclusive nature of all that we met was quite something else. We have the chance for a return visit too….As soon as our friend Tu decides to become an honest man and get married! I know for sure that both Jo and I look forward to that day immensely, and hope that circumstance suits for us to return.

Tu's brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Tu’s brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Fond farewells to Tu's father and uncle

Fond farewells to Tu’s father and uncle

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia

Stranded in Saigon

Vietnam’s largest city, the mighty Ho Chi Minh City…Although many still refer to it as Saigon. We’re still not really sure what to call it-Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina and then the independent republic of South Vietnam 1955–75. On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh. Today it is Vietnam’s most populated area, with in excess of 9,000,000 inhabitants (with roughly 4,000,000 motorbikes!)

On departure from the train station you are immediately hurled into this heaving, bustling, thriving metropolis. Motorbikes everywhere, beeping and jostling for position, surrounded by the bright lights of a progressive and modern city. Certainly it had been a while since we were in the thick of it like this, it would definitely take some time to get up to speed with things and adjust to being back in a major city.

Our plan was to stay a few days in the city, and then travel south to Rach Gia to spend Vietnamese New Year (Tết ) with the family of our friend, Tu, whom we had met back in Vientiane.

Tết is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture-it is treated as Christmas, New Year and everyone’s birthday-all rolled into one. It is generally celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, taking place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day.
In preparation for the celebrations Vietnamese families cook special holiday foods such as bánh chưng, bánh dày, dried young bamboo soup, giò and sticky rice; and everyone embarks on a ritualistic deep clean of their houses and businesses. Traditionally it is the time of year when everyone worships, celebrates and honours their ancestors, everyone wishes New Year’s greetings, and lucky money in red envelopes is given to children and elderly people.

As we made our way through the city, the excitement about the upcoming festivities was palpable. Huge flower displays had taken over parks and streets throughout the city, and the mass cleaning had begun-with some shops even emptying out their wares onto the street, to allow them to scrub and clean their premises.

Having gotten settled and rested, our first day proper into the city and we headed out to meet up with one of my friends cousins who lives in Saigon. Again it was great to meet up with someone who you had some level of familiarity with, and really interesting to get an insiders perspective, gaining a modicum of understanding what it is like to adjust to living in a city such as this. Oh, and obviously the advantage of getting taken to a great lunch spot, local knowledge and all that!
Left to our own devices, we hit the tourist trail and set off to find the museums, palaces and galleries that have become the standard procedure on city exploration. Given Vietnam’s recent history, it’s no surprise that the War Remnants Museum is particularly of note, painting a vivid an horrifying account of the atrocities of war, as well as the painful legacies that still impact the Vietnamese peoples today.
From the War Remnants Museum we made our way to the iconic Independence Palace, otherwise know as the Reunification Palace, the site of the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.

Having been away from the intensity of a major city for a couple of months, you forget how draining it is to spend time walking around sightseeing. The heat is unforgiving, the franticness just doesn’t subside, unfamiliar sounds and smells bombard you from all directions. You soon become aware of the fact that you aren’t really taking everything in, as I found myself coasting through the modern art gallery-somewhat in a daze and just being thankful that I had found some respite from the traffic outside. It’s at times like this that travelling is difficult, and you start to become self aware of your desire to have some purpose, an objective, something other than consuming tourism.

Saigon coffee

Saigon coffee

The modern art museum

The modern art museum

Jo started rebelling

Jo started rebelling

Ben Thanh street food

Ben Thanh street food

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Notre Dame Cathederal

Notre Dame Cathederal

The contrasts of the old vs new Saigon

The contrasts of the old vs new Saigon

View from the Reunification Palace

View from the Reunification Palace

Our saving grace was our planned exit strategy, to go and spend time with Tu and his family in the province of Rach Gia, away from the bright lights and sounds of the city. Unbeknown to us, travel becomes somewhat difficult around Tết as it’s an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. All Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, erasing the troubles of the past year and looking forward to a better year ahead. Given this mass movement of people, public transportation become incredibly busy, as we were about to find out.
We arrived at the bus company office, and things weren’t looking good. Jam packed with people trying to get home, we eventually got to the counter to be told that the next available ticket wasn’t for another four days….nightmare! Feeling pretty dejected, the staff told us to wait for a while and they would check out some other options, and as luck would have it they managed to find us two tickets for that day-things were looking up once again! Feeling pretty happy with our fortune, we made our way to the bus station ready for our journey down south, alas things weren’t going to be as simple as we had thought.
On arrival at the station we found ourselves dropped into the middle of, what I would term, unintelligible chaos. There were hundreds of people waiting at the station for various buses, and it was hot….Really hot!
Still, we only had an hour to wait and then we would be on our way in air conditioned comfort-oh how wrong we were. 5 hours later and we are still in the bus station, melting, and surrounded by fellow disgruntled travellers. The bus that was scheduled for 11AM had just left, it was 5PM. Our bus was already 4 hours late and it was looking like at least another 2-3 hours before it would arrive, if at all. With heavy hearts we decided to retreat, return to the city and inform our friend that we would not be able to make it-we were gutted.

The scene at the bus station as crowds of people waited for their buses home

The scene at the bus station as crowds of people waited for their buses home

Settling back in the guesthouse and trying to work out what to do, our grey cloud presented it’s very own silver lining with the news of the impending arrival of some people that we had met in Cambodia at the start of our trip. Ricky and Bryan were part of the SCUBA diving crew on Koh Rong Samloem, and they were an absolute hoot! They were going to be spending Tết in Saigon as well, and so once again we had some familiar faces to look forward to seeing, and to celebrate the New Year with.

Still, a few days to kill before their arrival, and so our quest to relax in the city began. First up, we managed to find the public swimming pool-an old school art deco outdoor pool at that! You can imagine that it used to be absolutely glorious in its heyday, although now it’s somewhat fallen into disrepair. Still-it was a welcome break from the heat, and some much needed physical exertion. The pool brought with it the discovery of a local gym, and as mentioned previously our craving of exercise was something that needed stemming-with time to kill and access to a fully equipped gym, we were positive about making the most of our time stuck in the city.
All of this in the midst of the build up to Tết, which was now at fever pitch, the city had been transformed with huge flower displays taking over the streets and New Years markets populating some of the parks. Time to browse the wonder of Bonsai, flower arrangement, and the various ‘ode to goat’, for the New year coming!

People jostle for position to view the incredible street displays

People jostle for position to view the incredible street displays

A flower among flowers!

A flower among flowers!

Yellow and red being the prominent colours, both bringing good luck in Vietnamese culture

Yellow and red being the prominent colours, both bringing good luck in Vietnamese culture

Impressive displays of topiary

Impressive displays of topiary

Amazing examples of 'giant bonsai'!

Amazing examples of ‘giant bonsai’!

Year of the goat, bring it on...

Year of the goat, bring it on…

You have your individual goat statues..

You have your individual goat statues..

Groups of goats...

Groups of goats…

And mighty golden goats!

And mighty golden goats!

As per the alignment with Chinese New Year, there are many Chinese traditions and celebrations to be seen as well!

As per the alignment with Chinese New Year, there are many Chinese traditions and celebrations to be seen as well!

In Great British fashion, we all went out, got rather merry, and enjoyed the most spectacular fireworks to ring in the New Year. It’s difficult to describe what it was like to be on the streets of Saigon counting down to their New Year-the atmosphere was electric, and the streets were absolutely jam packed with bikes, cars and pedestrians all beeping their horns, people cheering and clapping….And us-wishing anyone who would listen ‘Chuc Mong Nam Moy’ (Happy New Year!)

Heading out for Tet!

Heading out for Tet!

Spectacular cityscape & firework extravaganza!

Spectacular cityscape & firework extravaganza!

Admittedly we had a few shandies!

Admittedly we had a few shandies!

Electric atmosphere as the crowd enjoyed the fireworks

Electric atmosphere as the crowd enjoyed the fireworks

Enjoying the party at Vespa Bar

Enjoying the party at Vespa Bar

Bryan and Ricky doing what they do best....Pose!!!

Bryan and Ricky doing what they do best….Pose!!!

Nursing hangovers, the next day we set about our mission to get our of the city; not to be perturbed by our earlier failed efforts-we were once again attempting to get to Rach Gia.

Nha Trang

Travelling South from Hoi An, our next stop on our Vietnamese voyage was Nha Trang-a popular SCUBA diving destination, as well as being a big hit with Russian tourists. Certainly it’s quite odd to be in a place where Russian is the second language you find on signage and menus!
If you’re looking to find deserted beaches and a sleepy seaside town, then Nha Trang isn’t where you’re going to find it! More like Vietnam’s own version of Miami, it’s dominated by huge hotel resorts and busy beaches-as well as having the worlds longest cable car over sea leading out to the island resort of Vinpearl-the Vietnamese equivalent to Alton Towers.
It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, but we were there to find out a bit more about the SCUBA diving opportunities, and so made a beeline for the highly recommended Rainbow Divers. Promptly enough we were booked onto a try dive, and had our first taste of diving in Vietnam. It was absolutely superb-but further details will be covered in a later blog post, as we return for our PADI Open Water Course later on our trip.

Other than the beach, diving and the shops and restaurants, there isn’t a huge amount to explore in Nha Trang. It’s very much about the beach and a lot of sun worshipping-obviously that’s not at the top of my list when it comes to things to do! One top recommendation that we did find in Lonely Planet came in the form of Long Thanh photography studio.
His black and white photos of Vietnamese life are absolutely incredible, and have won many international awards. The reason why it needs noting is that it has had a very obvious effect on my own photography efforts, and from this point onwards you shall see more black and white photos included in my posts.
You can check out his work on his website; Long Thanh Gallery
Like a kid with a new toy, as soon as we stepped outside of the gallery I was trying my hand at some B&W photography!

First photo upon leaving the gallery...Streetlife

First photo upon leaving the gallery…Streetlife

Allez!!!

Allez!!!

B&W Coffee time

B&W Coffee time

On wandering the beach front we did stumble upon quite a grand building that prompted further investigation, and it turned out to be the recently opened Nha Trang Water Puppet Theatre. Not actually being aware of what water puppetry is, a little research uncovered the fact that it’s actually a tradition that dates back to the 11th century in Northern Vietnam. It originated when the rice fields would flood and villagers would entertain each other using puppet play. Nowadays the performances take place on a stage which is a 4m square waist deep pool, the puppets are made of wood and then lacquered, supported on large rods under the water, and controlled by a team of puppeteers in waders hidden behind a large screen. During the performance the puppets appear to float on the surface of the water.
Obviously we had to go along and see what it was all about, and it was a right giggle. To be honest the content of the show was probably beyond us a little, it was a series of Vietnamese folk stories depicting local Vietnamese life. With no narrative to follow or accompanying explanations we were hard pressed to figure out the gist of the stories-but certainly that didn’t prevent us from taking immense pleasure in the performance!

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Up against a deadline to get to Ho Chi Minh to meet a friend from our time in Vientiane, our time in Nha Trang was brief, but we would return…..More of that later.

Hoi An….ya like it!

If you asked a group of travellers what they miss most when they’re on the road, I would guess that the majority would say, unsurprisingly, friends and family. Certainly that is true for us, as is evident as we clamour for bandwidth to Skype home whenever we get a good internet connection! So it came as quite the welcome surprise when I logged on to Facebook to get a message from a couple of our friends from Leicester asking for tips on things to do in Laos-as they were currently in Vietnam and heading over there in a few weeks. I had no idea that they were in Asia at all, and as supreme luck would have it, we were on a collision course. With some excitement we left Hue and made our way to Hoi An for a catch up with some familiar faces!
As is the common theme with my posts, I have to allude to the journey once again. What makes this reference different is that there is no hint of a mention of discomfort, terror or confusion! For the first time in over a month, we were going to be basking in the wonder of train travel once again, and boy what a luxury it was. The Reunification express stretches all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, right down the coast of Vietnam. The views are spectacular, and the trains are clean, spacious and generally lovely. We were like excited children, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving white knuckle bus journeys in the dim and distant past…..Well, until we return to Cambodia at least!
From Hue to Da Nang took just 5 hours, and then a 30 minute taxi to Hoi An-simple. We were fortunate enough to bump into a South African couple who were heading in the same direction, and so managed to get a good deal on the fare, and as it turns out-make some friends that we would bump into at various points throughout our time in Vietnam.

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Appropriately Hoi An actually translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, and the ancient town is yet another UNESCO World heritage site to add to the ever growing list on our travels. Checked in and freshened up, we headed into the centre to explore what was promised to be a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th century. It used to be the largest harbour in south East Asia, and as such retains architectural influences from many of the Japanese, Dutch and Chinese spice and ceramic merchants that once resided there. As you can imagine, this used to be an area of incredible wealth and upon discovering the old town, it still holds the grandeur and charm of an extremely affluent area…Although now you’re more likely to find tailors and restaurants than spice and ceramic merchants. The town and harbour have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 200 years, and they certainly don’t disappoint. It is absolutely picture perfect, along with a number of temples, communal houses, merchant houses and other historical points of interest to explore. Even more spectacular is the way that the town comes alive in the evenings, with lanterns lighting the streets and people sending candles to sail on boats in the harbour…It’s a very enchanting place!

The harbour in all its glory!

The harbour in all its glory!

The 'typical' style architecture found throughout the town

The ‘typical’ style architecture found throughout the town

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo...But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo…But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

Suitably dazzled by the surroundings, we then had the fortune to just bump into Josh and Aimee on our first evenings’ exploration, before we got the chance to actually plan meeting up-and so headed out for drinks and dinner and a good old chinwag. One of the things that is great about meeting up with people you already know is that you don’t engage in the standard ‘opening patter’ that is inevitable when meeting fellow travellers for the first time. Not that it isn’t great to share stories with those that you meet, just that sometimes it’s nice not to have to give people your back story! By the end of the evening, and a fair few ‘Fresh Beers’ (local beer that is brewed that day)-we decided to book ourselves onto a cooking class, and also a lantern making class….Hoi An was most certainly rubbing off on us quick time!

The following day was an absolute blast, it started in the right manner when we bumped into a guy in some form of ceremonial dress in the street-Josh and Aimee being experts in fancy dress barely struggled to contain themselves! Pictures snapped and it was onto the lantern making which turned out to much more fun than I expected, however now we find ourselves carrying round a couple of these lanterns on our travels-real useful I tell thee!
Moving on to something a little more practical, at the cookery course we learned to cook spring rolls, a crispy noodle dish, banana leaf curry and a hotpot-all of which were fantastic, sure to be attempted once we grace our homelands again. Rather more useful than lanterns to impress friends and family back home…”Oh this dish, I learned this when I was travelling in South East Asia don’t you know” (read with appropriate smug voice)

It was fantastic to get to explore the town with Josh and Aimee, a real giggle. Props to Josh for introducing us to the most incredible Vietnamese sandwich (Banh Mi) shop. It may sound like an odd thing to rave about, when you think about Vietnamese food, baguettes aren’t necessarily the first thing that pop into your head, however Banh Mi are very much a Vietnamese speciality (albeit initially influenced by the French). At it’s most basic they are baguettes filled with pate, pork, pickles, chilli, salad and other unknown entities to the uneducated Westerner (by that I refer to myself)…Delicious!

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite...yeah-really! Very 'Big Trouble in Little China'

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite…yeah-really! Very ‘Big Trouble in Little China’

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Watch your fingers son!

Watch your fingers son!

First happy customers!

First happy customers!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

The daily fresh beer...And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The daily fresh beer…And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The next morning Josh and Aimee set off to continue their travels, we were left with a day to do a little more exploring of the old town, and try to avoid spending too much money in the shops here. If it weren’t for the fact that we have a long time travelling ahead of us, for sure we would have bought an extra backpack and had a whole load of clothes and shoes made-as well as kitting ourselves out in some ‘North Face’ gear! As it is, that just isn’t practical and so our bank account survived without any significant damage. We did buy a ‘North Face’ bag (after much research on the internet), not for extra space-but to replace our other battered backpack. Top tip here is to note that you are not buying genuine ‘North Face’ products, but you are buying a cheap, high quality imitation. The standard does vary, so just try to forget about the brand, shop around, and find something that will work for you.

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

One of the many international 'Assembly halls'

One of the many international ‘Assembly halls’

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant's house

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant’s house

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

Where the streets have no name!

Where the streets have no name!

Don’t come here expecting to have the place to yourself though, it is a fairy tale picture perfect town and as such it is extremely popular with tourists. It definitely isn’t a hidden gem, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.