At Saigon airport. In distance, it’s walkable from the centre – 5k or so from where I was staying – but I let myself get a taxi, first one of the trip. He got a tip, but it might have been bigger if he hadn’t, as we drove in to the airport, asked “you have Vietnamese dong?” Well yes, but you reminding me I can’t spend them elsewhere is a chancer’s approach.
Some people do travel in some wild clothes. The ones that pick tracksuit bottoms end up looking like retired athletes, having one last go at whatever made them famous. The baggy multi-coloured trousers, though – wow. Maybe the need to carry ‘travelling clothes’ contributes to the outside baggage people are encumbered by.
Connecting in Singapore was a pleasure – the staff member couldn’t quite believe I didn’t have any baggage to collect, asking, confirming, checking a third time. But no. Beijing wasn’t too bad – on the way out there was a long queue and it is all a bit of a mess. This time the queue was much shorter, at least, though the same mess – the one wide queue is turned into two side by side ones, for instance, which needs marshalling and reminders periodically to make it function. Changi is just a huge pleasure, cosy and lots to do, with outside gardens to prevent it feeling like an hermetically sealed spot. Beijing is all high arched ceilings, which they either can’t or don’t heat, a disadvantage when it’s minus 3 outside. But still, just some waiting then I’m off. Next time perhaps I’ll pay the extra for a direct flight.
“What is your transportation?” asked the Vietnamese-American sat nearby in Pho Hoa (‘a contender for the title of Saigon’s best pho restaurant’ says Lonely Planet). I’m walking. “Walking? Huh. Just …take a walk!”
And I had. After I’d got up at 5 to go for a run-my conclusion from Internet wisdom was that you either don’t bother, run laps of a park or get up early and do the latter. 5 was about right, roads quiet enough that I could cross them, so I wasn’t limited to sections of the canal but could cross each bridge as I came to it (yes) and get a decent distance in. The first person I’d seen on leaving the hotel was a local runner, and there were more, plus plenty of walkers, when I got to the canal. Perfect. Ricked my ankle once, on a manhole handle (!) but otherwise, a total success. Done by 6.15, the sun was up and I went to bed for a couple of hours. Running at that time was manageable-very warm, but like a blanket, rather than the furnace of midday – 37C, said one daytime sign.
Up later, I took a walk (Boston accent). The reunification palace is reachable from here, but the walk is a bore-every road crossing (not at 5am) is an effort, even if a predictable pace does mostly see you safe. I made it, but living here would necessitate a bike-or, more realistically, for me, getting the hell out as soon as possible. That said, it doesn’t seem quite as horrendous as Hanoi, though there my hostel was better placed, on a road that was walk and cross-able, and which even closed to traffic (which always has to be enforced with barriers-if you can get a bike down a path, a bike will go down that path) sometimes, with a patch of restaurants and bars round the corner and the lake nearby. Here, no oases, though there is a plethora of coffee shops. Funny road, though, as left out of the hotel leads, realistically, only West. I think it’s a military base that blocks the way South and SW. So everything has to go North then W or E, which makes it feel a little cut off.
The palace is surrounded by gardens, for a it of relative peace and quiet. Near(ish) by are the botanical gardens and History museum, and the War Remnants museum. Mindful that the museums close for lunch, I hit the latter for the morning. It is propagandised but still mostly effective in showing the horrors of war-particularly the victims of agent orange. Some hardware outside sets a tone, but any gung ho reactions will soon be tempered by the peaceful exhortations inside.
For lunch I ignored and fended off the moto riders who wanted to take me to a local restaurant and walked to a local one-more expensive than theirs, I’m sure, given that this was my most expensive meal yet, but left me near where I wanted to be. I explored the Adidas outlet store on Pasteur, which was underwhelming and suffered from the Asian posh store curse, whereby an assistant detaches like a tie fighter from the mothership and secures themselves to you by a tractor beam. Which means my browsing ends and I play ‘move as mysteriously as possible’ to see if that beam can be broken.
After lunch, the history museum, which is a little run down, but covers a broader history than many other places, starting from the Stone Age. There are plenty of proud dioramas showing successful revolts against the Chinese as Mongol invaders – the latter beaten three times – but without a colour code nor clear winner shown, each was a case (ha!) showing a red v blue battle, with some vivid plasticine deaths.
The history museum also has a water puppet show, and at 20 minutes it’s the shorter, more accessible way to enjoy the historic Vietnamese art form. Kind of cool, kind of somnambulant.
On the walk back I enjoyed my last road crossings a little. I enjoyed two small Vietnamese children waving “hello!” a lot more, especially the tiny one who kept it up all the way down the road.
I walked back, via Pho Hoa and Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) because I’d spotted I was near this one last entry in the guide book, and got back to the hotel without dramas, through heavy heavy traffic. Unlike yesterday, where I’d returned from a walk and nearly been squished by a bike. I guess it was inevitable, some time.
Up early, before 6, so as to fit in a run, have breakfast and make the 8.35 train comfortably. The only thing that didn’t work was my attempt to take a course record on a Strava segment – I relied on memory, raced North at speed then jogged South, and the segment runs south. Gah! A slower time than on the same route yesterday, for that segment.
And on logging in to check, I picked up notification that I’d lost a segment record from Gran Canaria. The irony. A day had made a big difference to the feel of the hostel, though. Arriving on Sunday the place seemed full of rude and inconsiderate fools, not least the four Israelis sharing my room, who took a phone call, walked in and out from the balcony chatting and spread their belongings over the floor before leaving a mess in their wake. I had minor revenge in not pointing out they’d left a moped helmet behind.
The next day, only two people arrived and once they’d unpacked and headed out, there was barely evidence they’d even been there – one had left a few things in order on the bed, the other though had squared everything away in segments within his locker drawer, leaving the bed clear. I was done and paid by 7.40. It’s recommended that you are at the station at least 30 minutes before the train to ‘check in’ though actually you just wait till they unlock the door to the platform. And half my trains have been half an hour or so late, so no real rush. Even so, super nice Mari roused a friend from the computers in reception for him to give me a lift to the station and I had to politely but firmly refuse a couple of times before they believed I was going to walk it, carefully marking the route on a map for me. Even though I came from there. And have a map. Super nice. Like a breath of fresh air.
7.5 hours to Saigon, then I check into a studio – a blast of frivolity for the end of the trip and to mitigate the busy city. Plenty of hilly terrain to travel through immediately outside Nha Trang, and bright sunshine to accompany the whole thing.
Up early for a run, leaving bell end noisy messy Israelis behind. Managed an hour, on which the super sweet staff noticed and congratulated me. Bless. Booked an early train to Saigon for tomorrow and splashed out the €34 for a studio-after Hanoi, I want a refuge, and besides, this is the end of my trip. Plus plus, that’s the price for two nights, so only counts as splashing out next to $5 per night in hostels. I’d originally thought I’d take three nights here and just the one in the capital, but Nha Trang is a big resort with lots of Westerners (rather than a hidden gem in which to indulge* myself) – not quite so obvious as Hoi An, but still, not a chill out place exactly, so I might as well see a bit more of Ho Chi Minh’s city.
Got to the big temple near the station on a walk, stinking hot here-over 30, in a humid way, at the height. And after an early run and subsequent chill out, I was walking at the height. I made a half hearted attempt to find the Severin museum-a little further up than I’d walked, I think – had a nap and hit the rooftop bar in time for free beer. Against a price of under 50p, it’s not the saving so much as the occasion that provides the draw.
I have clean clothes again. Just over a pound for 1.5 kilos of washing. Marvellous.
Lovely staff at Mojzo Dorm. Lovely chat over beer with German, Swiss and Pole. Lovely dinner with chat from waitresses about travel and what book are you reading, must be good, you so focused. Lovely sit on dorm balcony in warmth. Deliciousness.
Reading: Captain Blood.
* This is probably the wrong word, given that a half hour wander last night saw me offered marijuana three times and pointlessly chatted to by, I decided, a rent boy with almost no English.
Notice train quite empty again, not like the last trip, to Da Nang. Only after some moments does it occur to me that today is a Monday, and the busier journey was on a Saturday.
The journey is uneventful for five hours, my only excitement fighting to the door through the small crowd alighting at a station so as to get the food that has been offered via the window. The food service comes through the train just a little later, and I have some of that, too. Worries about running out of energy allayed, I settle into my book until, near the end, something skitters over my elbow and down under the seat.
I still don’t know what, but it was fairly large. Lizards skitter, I suppose, and that seems okay.
An hour or so later, they were back, scurrying from under my seat, right at the end of one carriage, forward and backward, then across the carriage. In the dark, they looked like spiders, but as they gambolled across the aisle, their lizard nature was clear. Three of them, I counted, and no one seemed remotely concerned so I calmed down.
They carried on scuttling for the rest of the journey. I tried not to notice them but failed. Not quite so cool as I wanted to be.
Travelling light-how to do it.
And how not.
We arrived on time or near as dammit, around 9.15. An easy walk to the hostel, paying attention to building numbers this time so I didn’t go far the wrong way once I found the right street. There’s always something to fool me, though-in Da Nang there were long stretches without buildings, only construction sites, which fooled me into thinking it might not be far from no. 3xx to 169. But those clear areas weren’t accounted for in the numbers. Here, I’d got the idea that each shop front went down in twos, got to 46 looking for 50, then walked and walked (well, a bit). Nope, not so simple – at this point letters came into play and I had to get past 48a, b…e. Found it.
Time for a wander down by the beach, marvelling first at some backpackers’ lack of manners, made worse by the extreme politeness and helpfulness of the staff, before a late bed.
Morning run, to the beach – other side of the Islet – along the beach a little, back to the river and over the dragon bridge, then back. Late, but still given breakfast, perhaps from thanks in playing with the youngster again. And the hospitality that had last night seen me drink tea that was brought this morning meant I drank coffee. Number four of my life, I think. Roughly.
Bus to Hoi An. As ever, tourism has a reality gap. Online is full of horror stories about the buses, danger and scams, but here people are on them all the time. I sat and waited for the local bus – just missed one, went the wrong way off the bridge, which is my unerring instinct. Just started typing this when a Vietnamese man pulled up and chatted, keeping me occupied till the next bus came along. I think he may have happily touted for the right to take me to the marble mountains and on to Hoi An, but mostly he chatted, so without the usual hard sell, I didn’t spot it till too late. Almost a pity, he was so nice I would have happily paid him. Then the bus came, honked and they laughed as I dashed for it – my friend was, in any case, by now distracted by a fare.
On the bus the other westerners argued over the fare. Again, online there is much talk of how it should be 17k and foreigners are charged 40 or 50 and more for bags. I just wasn’t going to argue over a price of £1.50, but the conductor was worn out or made forgetful by talking to the Belgians and Americans behind and missed me out. A little later he came for the Chinese ladies ahead of me. But still not me. We got to the bus station in Hoi An and I let others off before me. Possibly he’d remembered and was going to ask me at the last – was he standing in my way? I paid, though. He may have thought it a tip for good service.
Those online hate paying more for the bus. But 50k is cheap. And to turn, as some say they will, to paying for a taxi to ‘avoid this hassle’ seems a bizarre way round. Yes, pay a form of transport for which you have to agree a fare and which is therefore open to more profiteering, rather than the cheap and easy bus.
Hoi An. Unerringly, I walked the wrong way – this is despite my GPS doing a fantastic job of telling me where I am. But I had a couple of hours to kill and walking the long way round wouldn’t hurt. Found a restaurant on the islet near my hostel that didn’t beckon me in, ate, felt relaxed.
The town is pretty and she knows it. Walking towards the old town, thronging with people, are plenty of advertising signs; Hoi An has somehow managed to be at one time, selected as being in the top 10 small towns in Asia, and the top 20 cities. Plenty of people looking to sell things, though peace and quiet not impossible to find, whether by paying for a heritage ticket and diving in to one of the old houses, meeting halls, museums or temples which accept the ticket, or by heading down to the river. Sitting near ladies plying their boats up and down the river for tourists’ sake, I felt a bit odd being left alone – why, why are you not selling to me? None of the temples or houses were staggeringly impressive, but better to have a look in to a few than none at all. Other than them, every building is selling something – some workshops, shops, restaurants and cafes. Although the town is pretty, I preferred the anonymity and lack of westerners of Da Nang.
The evening was something else again, with riverside stalls and lights all over. Thronging, yet again, which made me evening run an exercise in dodging to start with. Sitting by the river was a pleasure, and my hostel was very close to the old town but outside the main strip, which was a fabulous location. With more time I’d have followed the river round and explored the thin bridge over to the next island, but otherwise a day was enough for me. On to Nha Trang.
Run round (the outside of) the Forbidden City, few oldies out swinging arms and exercising, and one other Westerner jogging. Crossing roads easier on the run. Statues of ibexes (?) by the river. No propositions at 7 in the morning.
Train, long wait, mostly tourists on this one – finally tempted off the buses by the promise of beauty. Late running train caused some panic from old Englishman. All clutching their paper tickets, I seem the only one with electronic ones.
Interesting what people pick on to exemplify England. Manic depressives would be mine. Football is a popular go-to – so no more wisdom over the corruption that blights the Premier League here than at home. Last night’s students suggested London was a beautiful city, though that’s a standard go-to. And today, at the Italian/Vietnamese owned hostel Barney’s in Da Nang… One Direction. He likes their songs. Never mind culture clash, it’s age clash that hurts. Though nice to think I might in some way be able to join him in reflection upon their magnificence.
Afternoon – late eating, in the mall. A mall is a mall, but still, Da Nang has the feel of somewhere going up, even if in a soulless investment kind of way. Supermarket had two product placement ops, one for Haribo, with a very annoying song on repeat and a mascot, and one for Pepsi, seemingly there just to tidy up the shelves if anyone touched them. Upstairs, an ice rink. With western kids on, showing off while the Vietnamese majority skidded behind penguin props. Perhaps this is a favourite place of western youth, a skill they are more likely than the locals to have.
Evening in the hostel, and a run. Played with the owners’ kid, Cupin, which was nice if a bit long winded. Ducking out to leave him with grandma and me on my own at the other end of the bar was a relief.
Tomb tour by bike, Forbidden city on foot
I took myself off to the Tu Duc and Khai Minh tombs, missing out on what sounded the most ornate, partly to avoid a busy bridge crossing and partly to leave time to see town in the day.
Bike ride a pleasure. I parked where I was waved in to – a minor scam by a restaurant owner, free parking but please buy a drink. I later had lunch, so was a fully fledged mark, I guess. Tombs fine, cycle great – only went slightly the wrong way, without a phone I’d have been pretty stuck.
Forbidden planet beautiful and sprawling. Much of it reconstructed, so as ever I had my European sense of 1804? That’s not old-particularly as there didn’t seem to be much still standing from then. But still, a good tour. And I took the route less travelled by, realising why no one else took the route I had away from Tu Duc-the road became a dirt track. Still took me where I wanted to go, though. Smug.
Later I walked Walking Street, pleasant by day – once past the docks where I was offered a boat trip a couple of times – but at night it lights up, restaurants and bars, but well spaced so it isn’t a strip like other resorts have. In between are musicians and sellers, but without the hard sell. I had a beer by the river, just because. The hard sell comes on the far side of walking street, and is annoying – first, do you want moto taxi, then marijuana, finally beautiful girls. How many girls do I need? But all the annoyance was redeemed by the last man’s excitement, on learning I was from England, at the thought that I might have… a coin. You have coin?! You check?! Well no, not even in my bag, back at the hostel, and certainly not on the streets of Hue. But for a glimpse of a different perspective, perfect – here, even 1000 VND (3p) is a note.
Up early. Yes, really. I was running at dawn, 6.20, so as to fit in an hour, get breakfast and have time to walk to the station for the 9.33 train. All worked, only fewer kids around to enjoy a “Hello!” I again waved no to several taxis and moto dudes, and was at the station to listen to the lovely sing-song announcements.
No ticket check an hour into the journey, but I think they checked for booked seats and then sold tickets to anyone in others. Loads and loads of staff. And the telly is still going, an hour in. Maybe we will get a sleep break later on.
Yes, we did. And later the Vietnamese comedy came back on. As did a few other westerners, but one benefit of travelling by train is that most passengers are local. Better than living in a I-traveller bubble.
More manual labour-signalmen. Four + hours in and we’re traveling through a remote and thickly wooded looking area. But off to one side is man with flag. What a job – trek to your box, pop out the yellow flag to let the train through.
Through paddy fields to muddy ones, people in straw cone hats farming, ploughing with oxen, bulls held loosely in place with a tether attached to a stick, pivoting on a post. Ingenious, though whether I’d rely on it to save my life if I’d inflamed a bull, I’m not sure. Such a green country, landscapes look like Constable or Wainwright’s work, until I spot a motorbike or a straw hat. Tried the train hot food – rice, meat things, veg things. Good. My elderly Vietnamese companion, who had got on with bright smile and ‘hello!’, sorted out the litter collection for me. So useful to have someone in the know.
Oddly, my left ankle hurt throughout the journey – enough that I thought I’d have to have the next day off. I still walked to the hostel. Totally fine the next day. Weird. I’m in Hue. Much more my speed (than Hanoi) – it is busy enough, but not thronging, nor buzzing with the engines of a million bikes.
With a motorbike taxi ride, woo. And a train-delayed, only 20 minutes, but still I was glad to have picked the 11.21 train rather than kick around till 3.30. No trains till the night, mind.
Like the buses, entertainment seems compulsory-two screens in the middle of the carriage playing music videos.
My e-ticket was checked as I got on, with no need for the passport double check that sometimes happens. So I was writing this as the conductor came past, and was about to hurriedly close it and find the ticket again. But he just gave me a bottle of water.
All this seems better than a minibus ride, a confused wait, and then being squished on a bus, even if the sleeper buses are reasonably comfortable.
On reflection, as I did when I got off, the entertainment may be only in proximity to a station. The railtv bit ended after three or so songs, and all was quiet. Then some revolutionary – excuse my ignorance, but that’s my interpretation at least – music started as we pulled into Thanh Hoa.
Marvellous. 3 miles to the hotel. Queue of taxi drivers. I walked, obviously. Sorry folks. And all the other taxi drivers who stopped – one to shout then wave with a friendly smile from the other side of a dual carriageway – and moto dudes who roused themselves from slumber at the probably unexpected sight of a rogue Westerner off the tourist trail. I left them all behind. And the pavement, too, ultimately, but then it’s a rarity round here in any case, so the fact that I walked most of the way on the pavement *not* looking like I didn’t belong, was a bonus.
Ultimately, now I’ve worked out I’m doing the long run – 10 hours on the train – to Hue tomorrow, today is a bit of a bust. Should have headed straight down to Hue. But at least my short trip let me test out the trains, and find that really, writing them off (as the travel agent in the Hanoi party hostel did) is a bit odd. Maybe they are more expensive, but not significantly. Tomorrow’s trip, several hundred kilometres, cost me £12, and that’s with a pound or two commission for the agents I booked through. The bus on the short trip from Hanoi-Ninh Bing was either $10 or $7 – I thought the former, but then the rice fields dude charged me $9 for a second night’s stay, so perhaps it was $10 to book there from Hanoi and get picked up off the bus.
Whatever. I’ve enjoyed staying in a relatively swanky hotel for the huge sum of $27 and am back on the backpacker trail. Tomorrow I make some real progress toward Saigon, though I’m still not half way. And i get to travel on my own terms, and in the day time. If the destination is entirely the point, then yes, pick a sleeper bus or train. But I want to see the countryside, get some sense of moving. So I’m doing a 9:30 train – means another early start to fit in a run beforehand. I ran this evening, mind, in Thanh Hoa, and that made the stop worth it. Although I’m in a whacking great hotel, near at least one other, Westerners are a novelty here, so every group of kids laughed and couldn’t get enough of saying “hello!” and getting a response. Brilliant. Running past them out the back of the hotel – quite so, I wandered down the steps and ended up coming out of a garage door out the back side – let me see why Google maps and my Here! app on the phone had disagreed about the streets round here. There’s a lot of new development out the back of this hotel, and much more of the pavements/roads marking out blocks kind than actual houses, though the now-familiar tall and thin constructions exist singularly on most blocks, looking a little lonely. Given that it’s a work in progress, the roads are fine to run on. And given that groups of kids want to distract with “hello!” they are also safer, as the pavements have regular wide open large man holes. Or several-man holes. I missed them all, but on a different day would have splashed down. Phew.
I ate, alone, in the hotel restaurant. I figured I’d pick something at random from the menu, but the very kind member of staff insisted I follow her to the computer and used google translate to ask what I wanted to eat. Like I know. I figured she’d turn what I said into a menu, but she was a bit literal. I should have said ‘something cheap and tasty!’ but instead got a literal steamed chicken and rice. Lots of rice. Stuff it, it didn’t cost much, and I’ve learned for next time – when there’s a translator in front of you, use it to make sure there are no misunderstandings.