Vietnam: Floating Markets and Mushroom Hostels

At 3am I’m woken up by the announcement of our arrival. I look out the window to the bus station and can see the address printed on a sign. We are indeed in Can Tho. Who could have suspected we would ever arrive an hour early?! Not I. Now we’ve got more waiting to do before the market opens. Fortunately, the bus station is playing Chernobyl (a crappy teen horror flick) on a little tv in the corner of the room, so that keeps us entertained for a bit.

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Floating Markets and Mushroom Hostels

At 3am I’m woken up by the announcement of our arrival. I look out the window to the bus station and can see the address printed on a sign. We are indeed in Can Tho. Who could have suspected we would ever arrive an hour early?! Not I. Now we’ve got more waiting to do before the market opens. Fortunately, the bus station is playing Chernobyl (a crappy teen horror flick) on a little tv in the corner of the room, so that keeps us entertained for a bit.

Asking the station staff where the market is does not go well. I’ve forgotten we’re off the mainstream tourist trail now, and it’s far less likely to find anyone who will speak English. The internet is a magical thing, and by using the wifi we manage to translate a couple quick phrases in order to communicate where we need to go, and to arrange for our next ticket. Everyone at the bus station is really patient and helpful, which is such nice change from the shooing we’ve become quite accustomed to in these situations. I’m so happy we arrived early to allow for all extra translation time!

Our next step is to grab a motorbike from the bus station to the Mekong. This is another hurdle. Do you know how hard it is to bargain with a language barrier? They want to charge us 40,000 dong each to drive to the river. I have no concept of how far away it is, it could be around the corner! I’m not even sure they’ll take us to the right place yet. What am certain of, is that they’re taking the opportunity to rip off two overtly lost foreigners, so I feel that I have to at least make an attempt at bargaining. I can’t blame them, it’s just a struggle to barter back. Somehow they agree to drive us there for 30,000 each, which isn’t much of an improvement but it’s 4am and they’re our only way there so what can we do but agree? We grab a helmet and set off speeding through the empty dark roads of Can Tho. I really hope this works out for us, I’m feeling kind of worried about it.

We arrive at the river 10 minutes later, where we pay our motorbike guides, who even help by asking what time we can take a boat and informing us that we’ll have to wait until 5am. That’s alright, what’s another 45 minutes at this point? A small land market is slowly opening up just beside the boat boarding area, so we stop to buy a mango for breakfast. The knife we purchased in Hoi An has really come in handy over the past week with the amount of mangoes we’ve eaten!

The positive aspects to us being so early, are that we will probably get to catch the sunrise, and that we’ll get first pick of seats for the boat tour. I expect tour groups to start arriving shortly, but at least we’re here at the front of the line.

We communicate with a boat driver who writes a departure time on his hand so that we’ll understand. 5:15, he says. Sounds good to us. Trying to figure out how long the tour will take is another thing, and never really works out in my favour. I don’t get an answer, just a departure time. We need to be back at the bus station by 8:30am, but I really can’t imagine a market tour taking 4 hours in any case. We roll with it.

At 5:15 the sky begins to lighten as we board our boat. We are still the only people at the dock, and get an entire boat to ourselves as a result. Amazing!! The sky turns a beautiful vibrant shade of orange and the market comes alive as we slowly maneuver our way between the boats. A woman selling coffee pulls up beside our boat and exuberantly offers us each a large cup for 10,000 dong. I don’t drink coffee, but seeing as I’ve had a long night and it’s being served to me from another boat, I buy one. Tam does too, and concludes that it tastes a “little weasley”.
We watch as merchants pass large quantities of fruits, vegetables and seafood to one another, while others wait patiently for the crowds to arrive. We are still the only tourists on the river. It’s a calm and beautiful morning. I’m not usually up early enough to experience the sunset, let alone from a small boat along the Mekong Delta.

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Our boat tour only lasts half an hour, which gives us time to walk around the small land market too. We buy two carrots from a friendly vendor who speaks no English and holds up example bills to signify how much we have to pay. It only costs us 5,000 dong ($0.25) for two carrots. I don’t try to bargain. She even washes them for us! I say “Cam Un”, which is how one says Thank You, in Vietnamese, and she looks thrilled and repeats it back to me. Everyone is so kind this morning!! We do a little walk around the rest of the market, watching women stack piles of colourful fruits, vegetables, and spices, butchers chop up various meats, and live fish flop about in shallow pools of water before being sold off.
Somehow the atmosphere of the market makes this beautiful. Usually I wouldn’t like seeing raw pig tongues lined up on a tray to be sold, but somehow here it just intrigues me. It’s their craft, this is their job. Real people come here to buy their groceries and restaurant supplies. I think it’s awesome.

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No one pressures us to buy things like the other markets we’ve visited, but everyone always smiles. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience. We stop at another stall just before leaving in order to pick up a cucumber. We’ve been starved for fresh vegetables lately, so today we plan to eat as many as we can.

We walk the 6 kilometres back to the bus station, because we’ve got loads of time before our bus leaves at 9am, and because we won’t be stretching our legs for much more of the day. We’ve got another bus and boat journey ahead of us before we get to Phu Quoc.
We plan to wait at the bus station for the next three hours, but I can tell the staff are flustered. They keep asking to check our tickets. I think they’re worried we’ll miss our bus because they know we can’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but they take some white out, cover up 9:00 and replace it with 8:00. All of a sudden we’re on the next bus to Rach Gia. From here we can catch a boat to Phu Quoc; our final destination in Vietnam.

Our bus to Rach Gia is plagued by a constant stream of music videos from the same cheesy artist. It’s hilarious at first, him wandering all over America in cities like New York and LA, singing slow love songs to different girls in every city. It’s pretty entertaining, but after half an hour of the same guy singing the same thing I just want it to go away. It’s like when I marathon Cake Boss and start to hate Buddy. I end up putting in my headphones, cranking them up so they drown out the sappy love songs, and manage to drift into some semblance of sleep. Waking up and seeing rows upon rows of bamboo stilt houses along the Mekong is kinda cool too. I read some silly review online about the drive from Ho Chi Minh to Phu Quoc and how it “isn’t very scenic”. Whoever wrote this, clearly didn’t take the same bus as I did.

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Three and a half hours later we arrive in the coastal town of Rach Gia. It’s a miracle that our ticket was changed from 9 to 8am. We would never have made it in time for the 1:00 boat, which is the last to leave for Phu Quoc!
We buy our tickets and board the boat right away…no more time spent waiting! Well not exactly. We still have to sit and “wait” on the boat for the next two and a half hours. We’re almost there though!! There are more sappy love songs accompanied by long and really sad music videos. Someone always dies. I try to sleep, but the woman behind my seat on the boat keeps putting her foot up on my arm rest, and occasionally touches me with her cracked yellow nasty toe nail. It’s traumatizing and not a fun way to be woken up. Especially more than once.
The multitude of crying babies on board don’t help, either.

The sad love songs have changed, and now they’re airing an epic Japanese fighting movie. It’s more entertaining and all the dubbing is done by a female Vietnamese voice. It’s funny to see men yelling at and kicking each other, but with only one woman’s voice to accompany it. Strange.

We finally arrive in Phu Quoc at 4pm. Tamara has googled cheap hostels and saved the address for a place called Mushrooms. This will be interesting. We find a man with a van who offers to drive us to this Mushrooms place for 100,000 dong for the both of us. We easily talk him down to 80,000. He makes the assumption that we know the only other pair of foreigners on the boat, which we don’t, but we invite them to come check out this hostel with us anyway. The four of us pile into a van with a group of 10 Vietnamese men and are driven a long ways from the docks. At least we’re getting our 80,000 dongs worth. We learn that the other two travellers are from Germany and have just come up to Asia after working and traveling around New Zealand in a van, which is cool!

We arrive at Mushrooms, where an old British man with a huge white beard greets us and shows us to the $6/night dorm rooms. He seems like the kinda guy who would name a hostel “Mushrooms”. I try to bargain on behalf of everyone and negotiate paying an even $20 per night for all four of us, but he won’t budge and says $6 is the cheapest we’ll find on the whole island. I believe him, because we’re on an island and things do tend to be more expensive. We accept the price and settle in. The first thing I do is take a shower.

Tamara and I take a walk down to the beach, which is completely empty. I’ve made the mistake of leaving my iPhone in the hostel to charge. The sun is about to set and I am without a camera! We make our way over to a group of tall rocks that we can climb, and from where we can sit and admire the setting sun over the wavy ocean. I take the camera-less mistake and try to turn it into an opportunity to take in the sunset with my own eyes, instead of behind the lens of my phone. It actually makes a difference and I feel like I enjoy this sunset more than any other. We sit in silence for most of the time, and just watch the sun slowly fall to the sea-line.
We’ve had a long day. From sunrise in Can Tho to sunset in Phu Quoc, every moment of tedious travel by van, bus, boat, motorbike, and walking we did was worth it. Arriving in Phu Quoc feels like such an accomplishment and we are well rewarded by such a beautiful, calm, empty beach. Once the sun has dropped below the horizon we walk back up to our hostel.

I think we’ve come across a pretty great place, this Mushroom hostel. It’s far from full, but there are a few other backpackers around and everyone we meet seems super cool! An Italian guy makes a huge serving of pasta for everyone for dinner and we BBQ fresh fish. Everything tastes so great and is such a treat from our usual ritual of going in search of a cheap restaurant. It’s nice to sit around and chat with our hostel mates over a “home” cooked meal.
Eventually, a group of us move down the street to a place called The Pirate Cave. We are the only customers on this fine Monday evening, but we dance the night away anyway.

Vietnam: Free Movies and The Waiting Game

Today we leave Saigon to continue on south to the Mekong Delta, which is famous for it’s floating markets.

We’re trying to be as thrifty as possible, and to avoid paying for one nights accommodation in Can Tho (main city in Mekong Delta area) we have made pretty elaborate plans.

Vietnam: War Museums and Ho Chi Minh Nightlife

Our 95,000 dong ($4.75) hostel has an included free breakfast, which we plan to take full advantage of. We walk down to reception where a small table with some baguettes, margarine, and bananas are sitting on a table. It’s not the most exciting, but free is free, so I eat two bananas and a baguette to tide me over until lunch.

Free Movies and The Waiting Game

Today we leave Saigon to continue on south to the Mekong Delta, which is famous for it’s floating markets.

We’re trying to be as thrifty as possible, and to avoid paying for one nights accommodation in Can Tho (main city in Mekong Delta area) we have made pretty elaborate plans.
Can Tho is only a four hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, so not long enough to justify a sleeper bus, but there is a regular local bus that leaves every hour. We figure if we can get on the last bus at midnight, it will get us to Can Tho around 4am, which will allow us to catch an early boat to start adventuring around the market that opens at 5am. The timing should work out well, if everything goes according to plan…which I know it won’t. Even if the bus is late and we arrive at 6am, we should be early enough to catch a boat.

We’d spent a bit of time asking around at different travel agencies about bus tickets and prices. Many of them tried to sell us on an all inclusive tour, and others quoted a single one-way ticket between $12 and $15, depending on who we asked. That’s far too expensive and we know it. We lucked out and found one travel agent who was kind enough to just provide us with the bus station address, and suggested we go there ourselves to buy a ticket. She estimated it would cost us $5, which is significantly lower than $15, and far more logical for a four hour drive. That’s our plan of action. The only trouble is that we can’t guarantee a seat on the bus until we actually go to the bus station to buy the ticket ourselves. We won’t do that until a couple hours before leaving, because it’s not exactly in a convenient location. We figure it’s a pretty low chance that the midnight bus will be full.

We spend our morning killing time. It’s really just a waiting game until 9 or 10pm when we can head to the bus station. We get our free breakfast, shower, and stay in the hostel room until 11:30 when we have to check out.
They let us leave our bags at the front desk for the day.

I find a cool review about restaurant online, that shows free movies all day. Sounds like a good way to kill a couple hours! The free movies come on the condition that you buy something. The menu isn’t exactly cheap so we scout out the most inexpensive options, an iced latte and a fruit juice, which each cost 45,000 dong ($2.25), then we head upstairs to the little theatre. Just in time for the start of the next film! It’s unlike any theatre I’ve ever seen, and only composed of about 10 couches for seating. We are lead right to the front of the theatre, and seated at a small comfy couch with a coffee table. Prime viewing location, and by far the comfiest theatre seat I’ve ever been in. It’s so cozy here! Monuments Men is playing, which I’m looking forward to. I remember having seen the trailer a few months ago and it looked cool. The film starts out with a scene in German, which is only problematic when the given subtitles are in Vietnamese. I don’t think I miss anything überly important.

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I do however miss a 10 or 15 minute chunk of the movie when some guy a couple seats behind us decides that playing some techno music from his laptop would be appropriate. My ADD mind can’t handle both sounds, so I struggle to tune it out. I’m not the only one, and everyone in the theatre turns around to look at this total loser playing music and surfing the internet in a freaking movie theatre. I’ll never understand humans. 10 minutes of madness later a staff member comes over and tells him that his music is too loud, by which he seems shocked, but does agree to turn it down. He answers a couple phone calls later, but this bothers me less.

Monuments Men has scenes in English, French, and German. The French is easy enough to understand without sub titles, but I am so jealous that Tamara can understand all the German scenes too! It’s pretty cool that she can be in Vietnam, watching an American film set in France and Germany, and still comprehend everything that’s going on with ease.

We watch a second film that starts immediately after Monuments Men. It’s called Anna, and has an actress from my favourite TV show, American Horror Story, as the lead character. I’ve never heard anything about this movie and I assume it must be relatively new, or is too “artsy” to have ever made it big in Hollywood. It’s definitely a little strange, but a pretty good psychological thriller. I thoroughly enjoy it, but still don’t fully understand
the ending.

After four hours in the dark, staring at a screen like zombies, we decide to back out into the world. Still playing the waiting game, though. We sit down for dinner at a restaurant on the backpacker street, and people-watch while we share a plate of sautéed veggies and steamed rice for the low price of 35,000 dong. I also try to order a carrot juice, but it arrives as a mystery white yoghurt beverage. Definitely no carrots…but maybe a bit of lemon flavour? Some sort of smoothie.

At 8:30 we decide it’s time to go. We collect our backpacks from the hostel and get a taxi to the bus station. The original plan was to drop our backpacks there and wander around district 5, but there’s nothing in district 5. More bus stations, some closed down cafés, a couple street vendors selling baguettes, but that’s it.
We also can’t leave our bags at the bus station. Hassle. We tote all of our stuff down the street until we find anything that’s open. We happen upon a three table café with a Vietnamese menu for what looks like different iced coffees. No one speaks any English so we just point at the cheapest listed item, 10,000 dong, and hope for the best. I’ll drink anything.
It’s awkward when they bring over two small bottles of Aquafina water, because we already have two big bottles sitting at the table. We laugh, our server too, and point at another item on the menu. He carries the bottles away and comes back with two cups of hot black tea.

It finally becomes time to board our bus. Hallelujah. Hopefully I can get some sleep for the next 4 hours. Maybe even longer if the bus is late getting to Can Tho.
We transfer from a small bus with a couple other people to a large one packed full. We even have assigned seats for the ride, which we only find out when strangers sit down beside us and give us funny looks. My neighbour points at his ticket and the numbers overhead, then directs me to my proper seat. I never expected such organization!
I have a love/hate relationship with the language barrier. Of course, it causes us to make some silly and embarrassing mistakes, but it also means we’re really in Vietnam on a local bus and not on some touristy tour. This is now officially an adventure. This is how I feel backpacking is meant to be done. We live and learn.

Hopefully, I’ll learn to stop making assumptions about when the busses will arrive. Instead of arriving late, at 5 or 6am like I predicted, we arrive at 3.

War Museums and Ho Chi Minh Nightlife

Our 95,000 dong ($4.75) hostel has an included free breakfast, which we plan to take full advantage of. We walk down to reception where a small table with some baguettes, margarine, and bananas are sitting on a table. It’s not the most exciting, but free is free, so I eat two bananas and a baguette to tide me over until lunch.

We walk over to the famous war remnants museum in the centre of Saigon. Just our luck, we arrive five minutes after it closes for the afternoon. It re-opens again in an hour and a half, so now we’ve got some time to kill. We were going to get lunch after the museum anyway, so we change our plans and go in search of somewhere to eat now instead.

We stumble upon a cute street-side pho restaurant with two small plastic tables and a couple mini stools out front. We order two bowls through very minimal communications with the vendor…meaning she says “pho?” when we sit down and we nod our heads in approval.

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She whips up the two noodle bowls in seconds and brings them over to us. A policeman comes by and also orders a bowl of pho. I guess he’s on break? He sits down at the small plastic table with us, and we have a short conversation. Both him and the pho lady are very kind and seem happy to practice a bit of English with us. When we pack up to leave, they both warn us to keep our bags safe and to look out for robbers. They say “Ali Baba!” while pointing at my backpack, which I don’t fully understand but smile and nod anyway. It’s Tamara who explains to me later that it’s a reference to a movie called “AliBaba and the 40 robbers”? Never heard of it.

We wander around the city for a while, going no where in particular until the museum is back open for business. It’s much bigger than I expected, and absolutely full of content. I, admittedly, know very little about the Vietnam war, but have been learning lots throughout my adventure through the country. This museum is by far the best source of information. They’ve got it all. Tamara and I spend an hour and a half exploring the museum in awe of all it’s donated artifacts, unbelievable photographs, propaganda posters, quotes and explanations about the war.
The two most impressionable points for me were the Agent Orange room, and reading about the shocking Bob Kerry story.

“Agent Orange” is a herbicide that was used in mass quantities by the Americans during the Vietnam war. It was used as chemical warfare, and has now affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people. It not only severely damaged and maimed people during the war, but continues to affect new born children today, who’s parents, or who’s grand parents, were exposed to the chemical. Many are born with severe disabilities such as deaf/blindness, missing limbs, extra bones, severe brain damage, cleft palates, different forms of cancer, cerebral palsy, and so many more awful side effects. As a result, thousands of children are abandoned left in orphanages to die. The museum reports that approximately 70 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam during the war. This makes me feel sick. The images of the victims are extremely hard to stomach, and make for a difficult, but very important walk through the museum. I had heard of Agent Orange before, but had no idea just how terrible and vast it’s effects have been. Some American soldiers suffered the side effects from exposure as well, but the numbers are in no way comparable to that of Vietnam.

The Bob Kerry story was another appalling truth I discovered. A man who was once a US Senator, was in charge of a fleet of soldiers during the war. On February 25th, 1969, he and his unit attacked the small village of Thanh Phong in Southern Vietnam. Unprovoked and without reason, they murdered 21 innocent civilians including children and pregnant women. There was no crossfire, they simply rounded up a group of civilians and massacred them at point blank. I’ve never been to war, but I can’t imagine how anything in the world could ever cause a “good” or “normal” person to do something so evil and sadistic. Similar to the Agent Orange room, I feel sick and am in total shock after learning about such a horrendous occurrence. What’s even more tragic, is that it isn’t the only one.

In some ways, the strangest and most enraging thing to me, is the photographers. There is a surprisingly large amount of photographic evidence to accompany each of these horrific stories. This quote from one of the war photographers sums up my issue with their participation. It hangs below a framed photograph of a crying mother and her two children, moments before their death.

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Yes, I am happy that these photos exist because I think it plays an important role in bringing to life how real this war was for people like me, who know next to nothing, but at the same time I feel angry that they did nothing but snap photos while people were being murdered in cold blood. One photo in particular, known as “The Terror of War” taken by an American, is world famous and has won awards. “Thanks for taking this photo of horrified children before they were murdered. Here’s a trophy and a million dollars.”
It rubs me the wrong way.

After a heavy afternoon at the war museum we have something planned to lift our spirits. We are meeting up with a friend we met in Ha Long Bay! Romain was one of our French pals on the disorganized boat tour, and lives in Ho Chi Minh for an internship. He’s offered to show us around the city while we’re here. We take a walk along the river, see iconic and beautiful buildings such as the Post Office and Cathedral, visit a market, and stop for a drink at a cute park-side restaurant.

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After our afternoon we head home to change, have dinner, and plan to meet up with Romain again for a night out. Ho Chi Minh is famous for it’s night life, and there’s no better way to find a good bar than to have someone who lives in the city show it to you!

Tam and I go out walking near our hostel to find a cheap meal. We find a cute noodle shop down an alley way and even though we’ve had noodle soup three times in the last two days, we order it again. It’s too cheap to pass up! The menu is all in Vietnamese, but we point to the cheapest listed price, 27,000 dong ($1.30), and are told there is “meat” in it. Sweet. 27,000 don’t for a bowl of noodles, and I’m happy with whatever is it in. The soup arrives with a few pieces of what I believe to be chicken, some cute mini-wontons, chopped green onions, and the usual salty broth. It’s yummy!
When we go to pay we are told the price is 64,000. We were expecting 54,000 because anyone who’s passed grade 3 math can tell you that 27×2 is 54. We ordered no drinks, used no napkins (which are sometimes extra here) and can’t figure out how in the world we’re being charged an extra 10,000. We don’t care, we’re more curious than anything, so we ask. The English spoken by the staff is minimal, but our waitress picks up an uncooked mini-wonton an tells us that they’re 5,000. We never asked for mini-wontons, and I don’t know if I was expected to know this would cost more…but apparently we have to pay for them now. I’ll never solve the mystery of why the unwanted wontons were added to my soup, but at least I enjoyed them. It’s times like these that I really wish I spoke Vietnamese just so I could understand how these things occur. Does this happen to locals too, or just us? Is it really a small scale scam just to squeeze 5,000 extra dong out of each of us? Do I just have a face that says “I love wontons”? I don’t understand.

We go back to the hostel to change for the evening. Romain suggested we wear something a little fancy, which is a major struggle when you’re backpacking. Fortunately, I celebrated my 22nd birthday from a backpack, and invested in an LBD that can pass as dressy for tonight. Tamara and I even put on a little mascara for the occasion. We still don’t know where we’re going or how fancy we’re really supposed to be, but this is about as good as we can manage under the circumstances.

We meet Romain and his friend Anthony near our hostel in District One. Everyone laughs when I greet Anthony with a handshake. I forgot that I’m in the company of chic Europeans, so I’m supposed to do the ever-fabulous double cheek kiss instead. Whoops. We start the night by Tamara and I showing them where to find 8,000 dong beer, because the cheapest they’ve found in Vietnam so far is 12,000. Granted, they have jobs and don’t have to sit on street corners drinking mystery beer just to save a few cents like we do. We stay for one cheap beer on the backpacker strip before moving on to another bar. Everyone in my company tonight speaks French as their first language. It’s good practice for me, but similar to our group in Ha Long Bay, everyone’s English is so good that we end up speaking this instead. Maybe they do it because they pity my lost and broken attempt at French, who knows. A few drinks in however, I start to get a little more bold about my second language, and we use a mix of French and English for the rest of the night. I love when this happens.

Romain shows us to a cool bar called The Cargo; a big open space concrete space with live music, test tube shot glasses, and red lighting. It’s cool and very hipster-chic. Most of the clientele look like expats and backpackers, though I don’t know too many backpackers that can afford 60,000 dong for a can of Sapporo. It’s the only beer they serve, and trying to play it cool while handing over so much for one drink is a challenge. Tears are in my eyes as I let go of what could easily be a whole meal… Or 7 beers back at our street-side 8,000 dong spot. Still, I know it’s not fun to be around people who are always so worried about money, so I remind myself that one night of splurging won’t kill me. I won’t have to fly home tomorrow if I buy a couple of over-priced drinks.

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We have a really fun night out doing a bit of bar hopping around Ho Chi Minh. It’s always so nice to catch up with people you meet on the road!

Vietnam: Saigon and Big Bowls of Pho

I wake up feeling so over heated. Tamara has the fan side of the bed and while I’m getting a bit of air flow, it’s not enough. I’m dyin’. I get up and try to take a cold shower but there’s no water. Perfect.

Vietnam: Mui Ne Beaches and Sand Dunes

Tamara and I spend our morning searching for a good spot to lay on the beach. Mui Ne has like 20 kilometres of beach, but in the morning the tide is high and there isn’t much exposed sand. We buy half a kilo of bananas and a mangosteen for 20,000 dong ($1) and find an empty, stick covered patch of sand to lay in. So far, I don’t understand the hype about Mui Ne.

Saigon and Big Bowls of Pho

I wake up feeling so over heated. Tamara has the fan side of the bed and while I’m getting a bit of air flow, it’s not enough. I’m dyin’. I get up and try to take a cold shower but there’s no water. Perfect.

I hope that by going outside I’ll get a bit of fresh air and maybe, if I’m lucky, some wind to cool me down. It’s better…but I’m still boiling. Tamara and I pack up our backpacks and get breakfast before the bus is due to pick us up at 8am. I order an omelette and to my surprise it comes packed with veggies, bacon and even cheese, with some hash browns and toast on the side. This never happens. Usually ordering an omelette means some onions and maybe a few tomatoes if you’re lucky. This is luxury.

We get on a big bus that somehow isn’t over crowded with people. No one has to sit in the aisle! They even have functioning wifi!! Besides the shower not working this morning, my day is off to a pretty good start.
We’re due to arrive in Saigon around 1pm, though we’ve planned for later. Even with my good fortune today, I can’t imagine we’ll actually arrive on time.

One of my roommates in Melbourne, Nhut, was Vietnamese and she has moved back to Saigon. We’ve made plans to go for dinner and catch up tonight.
It’s a good thing we planned for dinner and not lunch, because at 2pm we still have yet to arrive.

We get to Saigon around 3pm and the bus drops us off right in district one, where most of the hostels are supposed to be. Tamara and I find one called “Budget Hostel” where dorm beds only cost 95,000 dong ($4.75) and include breakfast. Done. We’ll take two please! This must be a hostel finding record! It’s the biggest dorm I’ve ever seen. There are 6 triple decker beds. That’s 18 beds in one room. The most I’ve stayed in is 12, and I’ve never seen three layers! The bunks are relatively spacious and private though. It’s pretty nice for $4.75!

We meet Nhut downstairs at 6pm and she leads us on a ten minute walk through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City until we reach our destination: one of the best local Pho restaurants. It’s a relatively large restaurants with many tables, but only a very small compact kitchen out front.

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Nhut says all the best Pho is hiding in the tiny side street restaurants, and is always better than the fancy expensive kind you would pay for. This is one of her favourites. We order three huge bowls, that arrive at our table faster than our drinks do!

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It is indeed, the best Pho I’ve had so far. Though slightly more expensive than most I’ve eaten. One bowl costs 60,000 dong ($3), but I’ve seen it consistently for 40,000 ($2) and sometimes even 25,000 ($1.25)!
60,000 is still pretty great for a huge portion of delicious soup.

The three of us set out to the busy “tourist street”, as Nhut calls it. It’s like a small-scale wannabe Khosan Road, but I say this with respect. Western style bars promoting buckets of booze, two for one cocktail specials, and import beer (we see a special promotion for 60,000 dong Budweiser) congregate at one end of the street, while a little further down local fresh bia hoi can be purchased for a simple 8,000 dong ($0.35). The bia hoi spots offer no tables or chairs, but guests are welcome to sit on the side walk and curb just out front. We settle down here where we won’t go broke on drinks. Slowly the night begins to come alive, and the streets fill with backpackers and tourists alike.

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Some local women walk around trying to sell fruit, nuts, dried squid, illegally copied English books, bracelets and much more. Sitting on the street corner makes us a target, and we have to refuse vendor after vendor as they approach us with their goods.

A young child, who can’t be more than 8 years old, starts playing with fire. Literally. He lights two flaming sticks and begins putting out the flames with his tongue. It’s slightly terrifying. It gets worse when his even younger show-partner reveals a live, long green snake, puts it up his nose and somehow pulls it out of his mouth. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Their performance ends and they then walk around to the tourists with an open hat begging for change. It breaks my heart. Some parent has sent their children out here with a snake and some fire to bring home some income. Of course I want to give them all the money I’ve got so they can stop putting snakes in their noses and go to school, but I know even 1,000,000 dong ($50) won’t change their lives.
Besides, I don’t even have 1,000,000 dong.

After a few beers and too many rounds of watching these children do their show, we call it a night and head home. I thank Nhut for showing us around Saigon; it was so cool to see her again!

Beaches and Sand Dunes

Tamara and I spend our morning searching for a good spot to lay on the beach. Mui Ne has like 20 kilometres of beach, but in the morning the tide is high and there isn’t much exposed sand. We buy half a kilo of bananas and a mangosteen for 20,000 dong ($1) and find an empty, stick covered patch of sand to lay in. So far, I don’t understand the hype about Mui Ne. We have plans to see the sand dunes later, so I hope those will at least be a little more interesting. I’m all for beaches, but I don’t really see the point in laying on a mediocre beach in Vietnam when there’s so much other cool stuff to do!

It’s 83% humidity in today. That’s almost all the humidity. I even find it hard to put on sunscreen because I’m so perma-sweaty and my hands are always covered in sand. I’m such a mess of a person.

We’ve booked an afternoon trip, I don’t want to call it a tour, to check out something called the fairy stream, a floating market, and the sand dunes for sunset. It was only $6, so how bad could it be? You may recall I said the exact same thing last time I booked a tour for $5, which ended up being $10… but this time I’ve confirmed that there are no extra charges besides a 10,000 dong ($0.50) fee to the dunes. I’m really really really hoping for the best here. We don’t have a ton of time in Mui Ne, and wanted to make sure we made the most of it. If I could confidently drive a motorcycle, I’d do all these things myself….but I can’t. It’s on my bucket list though: learn to drive a motorcycle.

We are picked up and stuffed into a jeep with four other people. We make another stop to pick up three more. There are now 9 people in this 4 seater jeep, plus a driver. The group of four English people and the three Israeli dudes that join us all complain, but I try to remind them that this is South East Asia and it’s part of the fun! You can’t expect a private car for $6.

I lather myself in more 90SPF sunscreen to avoid getting a half-body tan on my left arm and leg, which are exposed to the sun in the jeep.

Our first stop is to the “fairy stream”. It’s a very shallow reddish-orange stream running along the sand, so we get to walk along it through the water. We’re surrounded by some cool scenery like hoodoos and bright red sand cliffs. Along the way, there is an option to ride an ostrich for 40,000 dong ($2), and as much as I feel like I want to try everything Vietnam has to offer me, I don’t see the point in riding an ostrich. I’d much prefer climb the sandy red hills and explore the stream.

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Our next stop is a fishing village, which to me, just looks like a bunch of boats out fishing. I don’t think any of these people actually live on the boats full time, but I could definitely be wrong. Our driver speaks minimal English so it’s hard to get any answers. It’s beautiful in any case, but I don’t understand what makes it a “village”. We get about 10 minutes here just to take photos, we don’t actually get to visit the village. This is okay with me and I use the time to relax and take in the view. I love all the bright colours of the boats against the dark blue wavy water.

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After 20 minutes we pile back into the jeep and head off towards the dunes.

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I’m a little concerned when we pull up to the sand dunes at 4:00pm. We’re told we can have 40 minutes to walk around… But I was told we’d get to see the sunset, which definitely doesn’t occur at 4:40. We’ll see what happens.
There’s an option to rent a 4×4 scooter thing, for 400,000 dong ($20) per 20 minutes. Ummm heck nah, that’s robbery. We walk.

Although we can’t get as far into the dunes, I am happy I’m too broke to rent a 4×4. Their loud engines put a bit of a damper on the breathtaking enormity of this seemingly misplaced desert. Wasn’t I just on a beach this morning? Now, a cascade of sand hills rolling on for miles is all I can see.
We remove our sandals to begin our little trek through the overwhelming immensity of the dunes. The sand is soft and warm between my toes, the sun is shining down strongly, but a cool breeze picks up every now and then to keep us from getting too hot.

It’s hard to choose a direction in which to go, but it’s an easy decision to avoid the route of those on the loud 4x4s, and to follow any route that lacks footprints. The wind quickly washes away any evidence of foot and tire marks, but it’s still preferable to walk in a direction that feels unexplored.

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A top one of the peaks and on our way to the next one, the wind picks up and now, instead of providing us with a cool breeze, is pelting us with tiny sharp sandy swords. There’s nothing we can do to escape it so we push on, but oh how these little sand shards sting!

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When Tamara and I make it to the third and highest dune peak, I turn around and realize just how far we’ve come. The ascent through the sand felt long and slow, but I guess we’ve been moving more quickly than I thought, because now the entrance gate is barely visible. Not really knowing how long it’s been, we decide it’s safest to turn back now. In the distance to our right we can see a herd of cows walking across the desert. I assume they must belong to someone but they’re too far away for me to spot a herder.

To our left, we see someone abandon a broken down 4×4 and start walking back towards the gate. I definitely have no regrets about keeping my 400,000 dong for something better.

When we get back to the gate one of the English girls in our jeep is crying hysterically. Apparently she fell off her 4×4 by going right over the edge of one of the sand dunes. She didn’t understand that it would be a straight drop down, and went over at full speed. One of the Israeli guys somehow managed to flip his 4×4, and one of the British guys had his break down. So glad I didn’t spend 400,000 dong!!

These were apparently the “white sand dunes” and we’ll be going to the “red sand dunes” for the sunset. Here’s hoping. We pile into the jeep with our unhappy and shaken up tour-mates, and drive back towards Mui Ne city. We get to the red sand dunes at 5:30, and have half an hour to wander around. I over hear the group of English people complaining once we get to the entrance of the dunes. “They’re not that impressive, and they’re not even red” they say. Well actually, they are red. Iron rich-soil red. Not Vietnam-flag red…I don’t really know what these people expected, but I think they’re still bitter about the 4x4s.
My only complaint is the amount of garbage, as per usual. There wasn’t any to be seen at the white dunes, but for all I know the dunes are just gigantic sand-covered piles of garbage. It’s hard to tell with all that blowing sand. The red sand dunes are much smaller and are not as soft between the toes as the white dunes had been. There are local children selling long pieces of plastic to be used as “slides” down the dunes. I think about how much water got in my face on the water slides the other day, and decide that going down a sandy dune would probably end the same way. I pass.

Tamara and I climb up to a sandy red peak and sit and wait for the sun to set. We get pelted with more sand, and unfortunately for us, the wind is coming from the same direction as we are facing to watch the sun. We each eat a small banana while we wait, but I would guess 40% of what goes in my mouth is sand. It’s everywhere.
The sky is exceptionally clear except for one small cloud right on the horizon. Clearly, that’s where the sun ends up setting. We still get to slowly watch the sky go from blue to beautiful orange, but the sun itself gets hidden behind a cloud mid-way through. Somehow the sand looks even more red now that the sun has gone.

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On our walk back down to the jeep, Tamara compares us to chips. I don’t understand at first, but then I realize she’s referring to how covered in sand we are. We are like giant ketchup chips coated in red seasoning. She’s totally right.

I’m extra-ketchup chippy, because I’ve also managed to get extremely sunburnt. Apparently 90 SPF just isn’t enough for Vietnam. Or, it’s possible that the bottle of sun screen I purchased in Nha Trang is a watered down version of 90…or just regular body cream. One can’t really be sure.
Either way, I look ridiculous.

We get dropped off at the hotel where I take a shower, but the water pressure is so low I’m still covered in quite a layer of sand. I accept my fate and get dressed knowing that whatever I put on, it will be covered in sand shortly too. I just try to avoid anything that will hurt my sunburn.

We go for dinner where we both order curry, mine is called Thai curry and Tamara’s is called vegetable curry, but they’re 100% the same. Mine might have more coconut milk in it. They’re good though! We then get a green tea ice cream and Saigon beer at the same live music bar from last night. The same old man is playing, but this time on an acoustic guitar instead of an electric keyboard.

We have another early night in preparation for an early morning bus to Saigon tomorrow.