Motorbiking Around Phu Quoc

Today is the day. After a motorbike accident in Thailand almost two years ago, I haven’t really tried to drive one again. There was a brief ride around Sapa before I got scared and returned it. Today shall be different. Phu Quoc is the perfect place to get comfortable on a bike again. There are minimal hills, the traffic is mild, and there are very few buses/trucks/large things that could kill me. Motorbiking is the only real way to get around anyway. Our hostel is at least an hours walk outside the town, and even further from the cooler, more untouched areas of the island. I see hills covered in jungle and I wanna go!
No tour companies have established any trails in the jungle yet, so we would get the chance to explore it completely on our own. Provided that I make it there alive on my bike.

We rent bikes for $6 each. My stomach is turning, but I hate feeling afraid of anything and know I’ll have to face this at some point. We aren’t asked for passports, a license, or any form of ID. Just 120,000 dong up front. I get on my bike, and awkwardly have to ask how to turn it on while simultaneously pretending I’ve done this before. The shop keeper asks me if it’s my first time driving a bike, and I say no. Which is true. I choose not to point to the big purple scar on my ankle to prove it.

I get off to a really unbalanced and slow start, but luckily there’s no one else on the road. It takes me some time to get used to the speed control at my right hand, but after some practice my driving becomes much less jolty. Corners are where I screwed up in Thailand, so every curve in the road fills me with doubt, but I make it through a series of curves unscathed and am instantly more confident. This isn’t so bad! I still drive at a snails pace…but I do what I want.

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We head North on the island and through town, to find a road that will take us up to the jungle. There are maybe 5 roads total on the map of Phu Quoc. While it’s a soon-to-be vacation hot spot, it’s still in the process of being built up (which is a huge shame by the way), so for the moment it’s pretty hard to get lost. We head straight North for half an hour before hitting a dead end. A small, gravel side road jets off to our left, and after consulting the map we figure it could potentially lead us to a trekking trail. We decide to follow it.
Feeling extra dodgey and unexperienced on the gravel road, I take it really slow and follow behind Tamara. The road just gets worse and worse. We hit sand, mud, more gravel, large rocks, and some steep slopes. I still don’t know how, but I survive. There are some close calls when driving through the sand, though.

The only things back here are farms and houses. After driving for half an hour and finding nothing, we stop at a fork in the road and discuss turning around. Just at this moment, a group of locals drive by and tell us it’s “same same!” “It’s okay!” and encourage us to keep going. We do. Another half hour of near death experiences passes when we find ourselves at another dead end. This time for real. Luckily for us, the dead end is a small farm and the family is sitting outside. I know that no one will speak English, but I hope that by showing them the map they can point us in the right direction.
I point up to the area that we’re in; the north west side of the map. One of the farmers inspects the map with me, and points to a mid-south eastern point on the map. We are in a totally different place than we thought we were. How have we ended up south east when we thought we were going north west?! I almost don’t believe him. The area he’s pointing to has a picture of a big waterfall next to it. I try to ask him where it is, and he points to a downward sloping tree-root covered trail just next to his home. He points at the motorbikes and I know I will definitely die if I am to drive down such a steep incline in a jungle. We motion to ask if we can walk instead, and somehow figure out that it’s what he meant for us to do in the first place. He was pointing at the bikes for us to leave them. Aha! Good thing we didn’t try to rip down that path on a motorbike when they were telling us to leave them behind. That might have gone over poorly.

We leave our stuff and set out on foot to the jungle trail. It feels so wonderful to walk. We meander, alone, along a sandy pathway and across a stream.

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The stream is good news, the waterfall must be close! We skip across dry rocks scattered over the water, until we come across a Vietnamese couple having a picnic lunch under a tree. We say “Xin Chao!” and keep walking, but they stop us, shaking their hands about and saying “no”. They speak no English so I can’t figure out why we’re being told we can’t continue but it annoys me. But I want to keep walking up the stream. It doesn’t look dangerous and I’m almost certain this is the way to the waterfall. I also doubt that they’re any kind of park official. Just to be sure. We reluctantly turn around anyway. They seem pretty adamant that we can’t continue. Rude.
We haven’t eaten yet today so we walk back towards the trail and stop to cut up a mango before going back to our bikes.

After driving along the same questionable, sandy trail all the way back to the main road, we are starving. We stop for lunch at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant in town. I try to order chicken Pho, because it’s cheapest, but am told there’s no chicken so ill have to have shrimp. No problem! It’s only 5,000 dong more and I am on an island after all. Tamara tries to order shrimp fried rice and is told she can’t. She has to order stuffed squid. What? Again, she just agrees but how is it possible that there are no shrimp for her but enough shrimp for me? Nothing makes sense. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a nation-wide joke just to screw with the tourists.
When our food comes it’s delicious though! Pho is even better with seafood, and Tamara’s stuffed squid is unreal.

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All for the affordable price of 40,000 dong/person.

From here we head South to find a beach. We’ve heard from friends at the hostel that the beaches in the South are even nicer than the one nearest us. We drive for another half hour or so before getting sort of lost again. We know we’re on the right road, but can’t find the side road to the beach. We come across a small turn off with a sign that says “do not enter” in big block letters, but we see a bunch of Vietnamese people pulling in on their scooters, so we follow too. Do not enter doesn’t really mean do not enter in Vietnam.

Just kidding, it does. We make it 20 meters before Tamara is stopped by a man with a huge gun. Like maybe an AK47. I don’t know, that’s the only gun type I know. He’s holding it, ready to go, it’s not just tucked away behind his back. He comes over to us shaking his head and we do our best to stay calm and act stupid. We didn’t see the sign. Isn’t this to way to the beach?? So sorry. Our mistake. Please don’t shoot us. Okay bye. How can I turn this bike around as quickly as possible?

We escape unscathed but WHAT road were we just going down? Hey Zeus.

We find another street jetting off from the main one. Just as we’re trying to figure out if it’s safe to venture down, the two German guys from our hostel pull out on their motorbikes and tell us that the beach is incredible. We’re almost there! Sweet! We have to drive down another sandy road but I feel quite confident on my bike now so I handle it with ease. The sand is white and so soft between my toes. The water is calm and although it’s busier than the beach we were on yesterday, there are still minimal tourists.

We float out in the salty water for a long time before returning back to the beach. I’ve discovered the most horrendous tan on my legs. Motorbiking has worked against me yet again.

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As we’re relaxing in the sand I hear a “Hello! You! You! You!” and turn to see a Vietnamese man approaching me. What did I do?!
He asks me to go over and sit with his friend for a picture. Best believe I am not uber comfortable taking photos with strangers while I’m in a bikini. I look at Tamara, then back at the man, shrug my shoulders and say fine. I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t think it’s a creepy thing. It’s just a being-blonde-in-Asia thing.
Tamara is hilarious and gets a photo of them getting a photo of me.

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They ask me questions like why I’ve come to Vietnam, if I am married, have a boyfriend, if I liked Ho Chi Minh City, and my age. Some of their friends crowd around and ask questions in Vietnamese to be translated. They’re all visiting Phu Quoc for a weekend from Ho Chi Minh. If I wasn’t sitting in a bikini surrounded by people all fully clothed I would totally love this. They have the best intentions though and I roll with it. One of the girls my age in their group asks if we can take a selfie before they leave. Of course we can!

Shortly after the group of Vietnamese tourists leave, we do too. The sun will set soon and we’ve got an hours drive before we can make it back to the hostel. Tamara gets fancy and takes a selfie of us driving on the bikes during the sunset. It’s so beautiful to see the sky light up and set behind the trees, but I don’t dare try to photograph it.

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We return our bikes and get back to the hostel safe and sound. Hoorah I didn’t die!! It’s official!
We meet up with some people at the hostel and go for dinner. We’ve got an early morning start tomorrow to leave Vietnam and move on to Cambodia. I feel excited and sad at the same time. I’ve only got one month of traveling left before I have to go home, but I’m always up for a new place and a new adventure. Bitter sweet for sure.

Island Sunsets and Swiss Burgers

The first thing we do when we wake up is to find some food. We find a small restaurant down the street with decent prices, and each order a plate of “seafood noodles”. The plate comes full of vegetables, squid, and shrimp, which are cooked to perfection. It hits the spot.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing around on the beach. We are the only people all afternoon, besides Claudio, the Italian pasta cook who made us dinner last night. He comes to join us mid-way through the day. We’re craving more fresh fruit but pretty far away from anywhere we can do some shopping, so Claudio offers to drive us down to the market on his motorbike. He was going to pick up some more fish anyway. Awesome!

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He can only fit two of us on the bike, so Tamara decides to stay back and trusts me to pick up a good selection of fruit and veg. We’ve got a pretty regular order now; mangoes, bananas, pineapple, carrots and cucumbers.

Getting on Claudio’s motorcycle feels less than stable. It’s old, and every bump in the road makes me wonder if a piece of the bike might just go flying off. We make it into town alive but I hang on for dear life. We buy a whole lot of different fruit, including some stuff I’ve never tried before, and Claudio picks out a big red fish. Neither of us know what kind it is, though. We stuff all the fruit in my backpack, including an entire watermelon, and tie the bagged fish to the back of the motorbike to drive home.

When I get back, Tamara and I enjoy a delicious mango and try the mystery fruit. It’s red and shaped a bit like a bell pepper, but much smaller. It tastes like an Asian pear and is quite refreshing. I still don’t know it’s official name.

For the sunset, we walk back down to the beach. I make sure to bring my camera this time. Devon, a fellow Canadian, joins us as we climb up the rocks for the fabulous sunset and we all chat away, exchanging travel stories. He’s been traveling for almost a year so far, and doesn’t plan to be back in Canada for at least another two. I always envy these people who just leave everything behind to go wherever and do whatever they want for such incredibly long amounts of time. It’s so cool, and I think a lot harder than it sounds. Living in hostels for three years wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but the things you would do and see in those three years would make it all worth it I’m sure.

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After the sunset we’re all hungry, so Devon drives us into town on his motorcycle, which is much sturdier than Claudio’s. All three of us squeeze on and drive ten minutes into the centre where we find a place called “SwissFoodViet” who’s sign boasts to have the “Best Burgers in Town!”.
I don’t know when burgers became a Swiss dish, but we all want to indulge in a big juicy burger anyway. It just happens sometimes. We all get a burger with Swiss cheese, which I guess kinda makes them a Swiss restaurant? They taste incredible. So far the food in Phu Quoc has been amazing, but I make note that I should be eating more seafood and less burgers because I’m only on this island for another couple days.

We stop for an ice cream on the way home, and have a relatively early night. Tomorrow, a group of people in the hostel are leaving, and Tam and I plan to do some trekking or motorbiking around to explore the island. There is a huge spider in our room and Tamara bravely murders it with a water bottle, which I highly appreciate.

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Okay, so that’s not the spider from our room…but it was in the bathroom which still counts. Our room spider was much smaller, but still creepy.

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.

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!

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.

Crazy House and Long Bus Rides

Despite my best efforts with my bug net, I have a pretty terrible sleep. I wake up before my alarm and am unable to make myself rest anymore. I’ve been sleeping so well everywhere else, but perhaps I can attribute it to the intense heat that covers most of Vietnam. Dalat is in the mountains, and maintains a comfortable temperature. I believe it was 25 yesterday. It’s a nice break from constantly feeling like you’re melting.

Alas, we didn’t budget our time very well and don’t have the time for another day in beautiful Dalat. Today we travel back to the coastal beach strip of Vietnam; this time to Mui Ne.

Our bus doesn’t leave until noon, so we’ve got the whole morning to squeeze in another activity or two. We have breakfast at our hostel under the pretence that it’s included in the room price. We find out when paying, that this is not the case. We still only pay 90,000 dong ($4) each for our nights mosquito-y accommodation and one meal. Can’t complain! It’s also a pretty decent breakfast, not just some toast with over processed jam. We each get two sunny side up eggs, a baguette, a green tea and a cup of fresh homemade yoghurt.

We walk across town to the “Crazy House” which was apparently built by the daughter of one of Presidents of Vietnam. This lady was creative to say the least. Maybe a little drugged out, I can’t be sure. The Crazy House is a maze of staircases, faux-stone, and faux-tree root covered concrete that intertwines itself around a series of rooms. You can stay in the rooms overnight, but I don’t even want to know how much it would cost. Some walls are coated in gold flake, and designed to look like the inside of a cave. Other sections have wooden themes and look a little hobbity. Many of the sitting areas are teeny tiny, and I feel like Alice in Wonderland crouching through the doorways while exploring the house. We spend half an hour wandering around and climbing the winding staircases before we think we’ve seen everything. One can’t really be sure, because there are so many different pathways to choose. Some of them take us up pretty high, where we can get a nice view of Dalat.

 

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We walk back to the hostel and wait for our bus. It comes half an hour late to pick us up, and takes even longer than expected to get us to Mui Ne. As per usual it’s packed with 20 people instead of the should-be 15. Our ticket says that our arrival time is 2:00, but we don’t arrive until closer to 6:00. We had planned to try and catch the sunset from the sand dunes tonight, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
People in the aisles of the bus

Finding accommodation in Mui Ne is harder than excepted. My Lonely Planet book lists many places for 6 and 7 dollars a night, but even when we arrive at two of the same places listed in the book, their prices are suddenly $10. No one is willing to bargain. It’s the low season I don’t understand how this is possible. On our 5th or so stop to find a room, they quote us $8, which is better but still not great. We go in to take a look and find rat poo on the ground, a bathroom door handle covered in rust, and no bug net in a place that I can assure you, will have a million bugs. It is right on the beach though, I suppose that’s a plus. It’s hot, getting dark, and we’re both tired and hungry, but I have a bug net and will be able to sleep anywhere. Tamara says she doesn’t mind staying either. Reluctantly, we hand over our passports. While I’m in the bathroom changing into some lighter clothes, I see more rat poo and can hear animals scurrying around in the walls. I see an actual mouse. If I was paying $2, this wouldn’t bother me, but $4?! No. We had passed another guesthouse a little further back and wrote them off for charging $10, but I didn’t try to bargain. I apologize, but tell Tamara I don’t want to stay, this place sucks. We collect our passports and go back to the $10 guesthouse, I manage to bargain them down to $8, (with a struggle) and they show us to a much cleaner, bug net-provided room.
It’s still not the bargain accom I was hoping for, but it’s better than paying the same to sleep in a room full of rat poo.

We get a cheap dinner, which makes me feel a little less annoyed by everything, and then go for a beer at a bar with live music. An old man playing an electric piano and doing a surprisingly good job of covering American classics. There are maybe a total of 10 other people in the whole place. This is the problem with the low season. No humans! We go back to the room for an early night.

Weasel Coffee and Waterfalls

My alarm is set for 6:30 but I hit snooze a few times before getting up. Whenever I stay somewhere for more than one night, and sometimes even then, my backpack looks like it’s exploded. Stuff goes everywhere, nothing is folded or rolled properly, it’s terrible. Staying for three nights is like a curse. I have a lot to pack up.
We’ve purchased some bananas and a mango for our breakfast, and I expect that we’ll have lots of time to cut up the mango while we wait for the bus that is due to pick us up at 7:30.
I finish packing and relax on the bed, taking advantage of my last few minutes of wifi before going downstairs to wait for the bus.
At 7:20 we get a knock on the door, telling us the bus is here. Here?! Early?! Well, I never. Luckily we’re all set to go so we grab our stuff and head downstairs to pay quickly before boarding the bus. It’s a smaller bus today, more like a minivan, and has pretty comfortable seats. Quelle surprise!

It’s a five hour drive to Dalat, which isn’t really that far from Nha Trang, but the winding mountain roads make it hard to get anywhere quickly.
One of my Dad’s employees is Vietnamese and is actually from Dalat! He gave me some great tips for Vietnam during the six months that I worked at dear old ECOH (an Environmental Consulting company. Check them out.) I really look forward to seeing where he grew up, and have heard nothing but good things from other travellers we’ve met along the way.

When we do finally arrive, we are bombarded with the usual hotel and motorbike hawkers. Some of them speak French, and seek out Tamara specifically to try and convince her that she needs to be driven into town. I know for a fact that we do notneed to be driven, because I’ve pulled up a map of Dalat on my phone before arriving. We’re a 5 minute walk from the centre, tops. She politely explains to one of them that we don’t need the motorbikes, and one of them kinda freaks out at us. All in French, and very quickly so I don’t understand every word, but yelling is the same in every language. Whatever dude.
I’ve read that we can find accommodation for $6/night here, so that is our goal. If successful, it will be our cheapest accommodation yet. As we start our walk into town we are still followed by a few desperate hawkers. One man in particular, who introduces himself as Mr. Gentle, keeps popping up on his motorbike at every corner. He has dorm accommodation for $6 each and says he will include breakfast, but we were hoping to pay $6 total, so it’s not ideal. We take his card and say we’ll come check it out, but apparently that’s not good enough. Every time we round a corner, he’s there, and he’s offering us a new price. We eventually talk him down to $6 a night for a private room. He makes us promise not to tell the other guests what we’re paying, but says he’s desperate for more business because he’s only been open for one month. It’s May, which I believe is the absolute lowest tourist season in Vietnam. This has it’s perks when you’re trying to save some money. We follow him to his hostel and find our room. It’s small and simple but has some charm, like the tacky, fuzzy leopard print table cloth on the coffee stand. We also have access to a balcony with a nice view that is shared with the dorm room, so that’s a bonus. It’s 1pm and we’re ready for lunch, so Mr. Gentle suggests we eat next door. I can’t read him yet. I don’t know if I think he’s a creepy hostel guest stalker with a fake smile, or a genuinely nice guy. I’m especially skeptical about the restaurant because he obviously has to suggest them, but their price is only 25,000 dong ($1.25) for a bowl of beef pho. I am very okay with that. Compared to the 55,000+ I saw pho for in Nha Trang, this is a pleasant surprise. And the soup is yummy to boot!

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After lunch we head in to town to find a place to rent motorcycles so we can head out to Elephant Waterfall. On our way, we stop at a little shop to pick up some necessities. I get two packets of tissues and a whole tube of Crest toothpaste for 16,000 dong. 16,000!! That’s not even 75 cents. I love Dalat, I’m never leaving. Everything is so affordable here!! Kevin, why did you ever leave?!

Before finding a motorbike rental place, we stumble upon an eager motorbike taxi driver…obviously. He works for a company called EasyRider which I’ve been hearing about since we got to Nha Trang. I don’t know what it is, but it sounds like a tour and tours have not been kind to us in the past. I’m pretty reluctant. He’s asking $20. The price listed is $25, but “because it’s the low season” he will give us a discount. I’m sure everyone hears this line. He shows us a list of all the sights we would see, and one of the things on the list includes lunch. We’ve eaten, and I feel like no lunch should give us another easy discount. We don’t want to see all the sights on the map, just the Elephant Waterfall, and after seeing the silk extracting factory, rice wine and coffee farms listed, we’re happy to stop there too. It’s already 2pm, so we can’t fit in a whole day of sight seeing anyway. We bargain the price down to $13. He says he’ll help us out because we’re poor students and he understands. We’ve managed to save so much money on accommodation and food so far in Dalat, that I’m not totally opposed to spending some on an afternoon of activities…and he doesn’t seem to be budging any further than $13. He seems very nice, and has great English skills, which will come in handy should we have any questions. We agree to $13 and he calls up a friend so we can each have our own bike instead of trying to cram two of us onto one. He introduces himself to us as Happy, and his friends name is Thai. Everyone in Dalat seems to have a nickname!
Still feeling a little skeptical and hoping we haven’t just signed up for another stupid tour, I give Tamara a “we’ll see” look, and get on the back of my motorbike before I go flying through the streets of Dalat.

My driver is an expert, and is not kidding around with this traffic. I don’t know much about motorbikes but the quality of this one seems great. No loud sounds from the engine, road bumps feel minimal as we hit the occasional pot hole, and once we get to the open roads, he rips around corners with ease.
We pass through some pretty dodgey roads undergoing construction, which makes me really thankful that we didn’t try to drive this on our own. I don’t think I would have made it.

30 minutes or so later, we’ve reached our first destination: the coffee bean farm. Tamara’s bike driver gives us a mini tour and explains the different types of coffee grown here. His English isn’t quite as good as that of my driver, and he has a tendency to mumble so it’s hard to understand. When he explains “weasel coffee” to me, I’m sure that I’ve misheard him.
But it seems that I have not. Coffee beans are harvested, dried in the sun, and then fed to weasels who then poop them out, still whole, apparently weasels don’t chew their food, and lastly roasted to make a “distinctive aroma”, as our guide keeps describing it. We even get to see the weasels and a little basket of their pooped out coffee beans. Deeeeelish!
The farm grows two other kinda of coffee, but this one is by far the most interesting.

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I’m not a coffee drinker, but apparently, when in Dalat, one must drink weasel poop. We order a cup of this strange coffee as well as a cup of one of their more familiar blends to compare flavours. I think we’ve really lucked out today by starting our trip later in the afternoon. We are the only people on the entire coffee farm, and get to sit in a bamboo-built café overlooking the coffee fields, mountains and a river. It’s scenic and serene; far higher than my expectations were set.
We each try the crazy weasel coffee, and I find it’s actually quite good. Very full bodied and aromatic, but not in the way you would expect. We also get a pot of ginger green tea thrown is as part of the experience. I think it’s provided as a palate cleanser, but I use it to wash down the coffee flavour. The weasels haven’t changed me; I’m still a tea lover.

Next up on our itinerary is the Elephant Waterfall. It’s why we’ve come today! We had hoped we could swim here, but our drivers laugh and tell us that the water is far too dirty. That’s a little disappointing but waterfalls are always cool in any case.
We drive through a small populated area named Nam Ban village, where many locals are out selling fruit on the side of the road. There’s not a tourist in sight, which makes me become even more confident that we’ve made a good decision with these EasyRider bikes. The village only lasts for a kilometre or so before we’re back to empty country roads. I take in the smell of fresh mountain air and the bright red earthy sight of the road in contrast with the lush green vegetation around me. It really is the most pigmented dirt I’ve ever seen. I make a comment about it to my driver, Happy, and he explains that the mountain used to be a volcano many years ago and that’s why the colour is so intense. How cool!!

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We arrive at the Elephant Waterfall and are guided down by Tamara’s driver. There is a heavy water flow over the top of the falls, and the water is a reddish brown colour due to the volcanic dirt. They weren’t kidding, this doesn’t look like an ideal place to swim at all! Our guide points out one of those sensitive plants that closes when you touch it, and we have fun discovering the bizarre awesomeness that is nature.

I get distracted on the way down to the foot of the falls by the unbelievable number of dragonflies. The sky is scattered with the beautiful hovering insects for what looks like miles. I’ve never seen so many dragonflies in my entire life as I can see right now. For lack of a better way to describe it, it gives the sky an air of mysticism. It’s beautiful and I feel like I’m in some sort of paradise. It’s one of those moments you can’t capture on camera, but I’m pretty confident that I won’t forget such a sight.

Our climb down to the falls is slightly challenging, but only because we’re in flip flops, and all the rocks and tree roots are slick with mist. We have to mind our footing quite a bit, but our guide does a very valiant job of making sure to hold out a helping hand on our descent.

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We climb down through a cave behind the falls, where the mist is probably it’s most intense. I try to venture over and get as close as I can, but I only make it so far before I’m blinded by the combination of wind and water. Both Tamara and I get absolutely soaked in a matter of seconds just due to our proximity to the falls, laughing the whole time. Tamara says it’s “same same but different as swimming”. I think it’s even better! I think it’s so incredible how much sheer power can come from something I also drink from a small glass.

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Once we’ve had enough of the water filled wind tunnel behind the falls, we get back to relatively dry land where our guide is waiting for us. He takes a whole bunch of pictures of us trying to approach the falls, and I’ve never been more thankful for a waterproof phone case. Even from where he stood, the mist was intense and my phone looks like it’s just had a bath.
He offers his jacket to Tamara to keep her warm, which is the kindest thing I’ve ever seen. Our drivers are the best!

We climb back up to where the bikes are parked, and get back on the road, still drenched from our little waterfall adventure. My hair dries quickly, as my driver travels at high speed to our next stop. I think we’re now headed back towards Dalat, but I can’t be sure. It’s easy to get turned around on the mountain roads…and let’s be honest, my internal compass is dodgey at best.

We pull over and get to step inside a small silk separating room. Women are lined up at a machine that reminds me a whole lot of my time in Tasmania sorting cherries. Sort of an assembly line of silk worm cocoons. The silk worms are submerged in boiling water to loosen the silk strands around their bodies, and placed by hand into a machine that inexplicably is able to unravel the cocoon down to a thin single strand. This then gets fed up to a big spinning wheel, where the silk is re-ravelled into large spools. I’ll never completely understand how it works, but it looks amazing.

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Our guide tells us that they use the shells of coffee beans from nearby farms to fuel the silk separating machine. What? Efficient and Eco-friendly while making a luxurious textile? I love this place.

Rain clouds are rolling in, as I’m told they do every evening in Dalat. Our drivers have brought rain ponchos for us, but are trying to beat the rain to get us home dry. Well, relatively dry. It’s a little late after the waterfall.
We just have one more stop to take a quick tour of a rice wine farm.
Dalat is famous all over Vietnam for it’s wines, and I go in expecting to see rows upon rows of red and white wine barrels aging in a cellar. Instead, I realize that we’ve come to a place that manufactures rice wine, like 65% sake-like rice wine. Not wine wine. Silly me!
It’s just as interesting, and although they’ve finished brewing for the day, we get to take a tour of the room where they dry the rice, liquidate, mix, steam, and ferment it in giant blue plastic barrels. We see a heap of steamed rice sitting on a tarp on the ground, absolutely covered with flies. For some reason this doesn’t bother me one bit. Sure, it’s not super hygienic, but I guess if I know that other people drink the wine made from this stuff and don’t die, I don’t really care. In some ways I kind of like it because it emphasizes the rural and small scale kind of production here. That makes it more interesting to me.

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We drive back to Dalat, the sky covered with black clouds, but without a drop of rain. We thank our EasyRider drivers and get a photo with them to remember what a fun afternoon they showed us.

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Just as we start to walk up the hill to our hostel, it starts to rain. Just on time! I still don’t mind, because my clothes still haven’t dried.
We spend a bit of time at the hostel showering and changing into dry clothes before venturing out for dinner. It’s tempting to eat at the same place we did for lunch to ensure a cheap meal, but we decide it’s best to walk down to the centre and check out the restaurants down there too. We come across a skinny and dimly lit restaurant with very affordable prices. I order a bowl of soup for 30,000 dong ($1.50) and a glass of white local Dalat wine for 15,000 ($0.65). Tamara orders a soup and a glass of red.

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When our food comes we don’t speak until we’ve finished our meal. I didn’t realize I was hungry until the bowl of delicious noodles was set in front of me. One woman is sitting with her laptop and watching a movie at full volume in the middle of the restaurant, so we don’t stay for another glass of wine.
We head back up to our hostel and sit at the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, just to enjoy a beer on the patio. When the mosquitos get bad, we retreat to our room and sleep.

In the middle of the night I wake up to the sound of mosquitos buzzing around my head and itchiness all over my body. Nooooo! How did they get in here?? I’m too lazy to get up and retrieve my bug net from my backpack, and I don’t want to wake Tam.

Just kidding, after another 5 minutes of buzzing I do it anyway because I can’t sleep like this. I feel awful when she wakes up as I’m clumsily trying to assemble my net in the dark, but she gets up and helps me, the angel. She also laughs hysterically when I crawl into my little tent. It’s the first time she’s seen it. You laugh now, but who will be using the most tiger balm tomorrow hmm? This tent is a god send (it’s actually an aunt-and-uncle send) and allows me to get some sleep.

Vinpearl Land

For our last full day in Nha Trang we’ve decided to splurge a bit and visit Vinpearl Land, a theme park on an island just across the water. Tickets are 550,000 dong ($25), which is over our budget, but we’ve had a relatively cheap last few days and we get to take a sweet cable car to the island.
We search for motorbike taxis but of course, as soon as we’re looking for something we can’t find it so we settle on a regular taxi instead. I was told a motorbike would cost 60,000 each to take us to the cable car, and this taxi driver only charges us 80,000 between the two of us. I try to bargain a bit anyway, but he just laughs, says it’s impossible, and turns on the meter. When we arrive at the cable car, it’s literally just hit 79,000. He knows what’s up.
The cable car is included in the price the ticket, and is a really cool way to start our day. There are no line ups at the entrance gate, which seems like a good sign that the place won’t be totally over run with tourists today! We even get a car all to ourselves because there are so few people. Bonus!
It’s a beautiful sunny day, and the cable car glides over the pristine turquoise water, giving us a really great view of both Vinpearl and Nha Trang.

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Once we’ve reached the other side, we enter a seemingly empty park. I’m pumped, because that means we won’t have to wait in any long lines for the rides! Or, as we quickly discover, it could mean all the rides are shut down for lack of demand. Oh how I wish someone would have mentioned that when we dropped $25 on tickets. That’s kind of a bummer, but the water park is still open!

We head down to the beach for the first couple hours, because some clouds look like they’re rolling in and the water is still calm for now. It’s an absolutely fantastic beach with white sand and beautiful blue water.

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We walk down the shore looking for a vacant beach chair but they’re hard to come by. Sure, we could lay our towels in the sand but I’m confident that we can find somewhere to sit if we keep walking. We do eventually find a spot, drop our things and head straight for the water. I’ve only been away for 5 minutes when I look back to the beach and see three middle aged people moving our stuff off the beach chairs and trying to claim them for themselves. Hella no! I walk back and point out the fact that we’re obviously sitting there, hence our items on the chairs, and they act confused before walking on to find someone else’s seats to poach.

Walking back to meet Tamara in the water, both of us burst out laughing at this ridiculous mother and daughter pair having a photo shoot. The mom is taking what must be hundreds of photos of her daughter, who’s wearing a thong bikini and making ridiculous, yet serious, sexy poses. I feel embarrassed for them. They spend forever doing it, and never actually go for a swim or lay on the beach. They’ve just come for pictures. They’re not the only ones though, we see dozens of people doing the exact same thing. One girl uses her boyfriend as a photographer while she rolls around in the sand, fixing her hair to make sure it’s just so, while still trying to look casual and candid. Watching people take photos will provide us with entertainment all day.

After some time on a beach, and even a little nap in the shade, we try to visit the water park. It’s a bit of a challenge with our day bag, which carries all of our necessary things like wallets, phones, cameras. You can’t bring that down a water slide with you. We leave it on a bench and ask a Vietnamese women with two children to watch it for us. She says no.
We leave it there anyway and pray it won’t get stolen. There is a locker, but it’s far away and 10,000 dong ($0.50) so clearly leaving our items out in the open is a better option. We run up the stairs of the water slide in order to be reunited with our things faster. We can still see the bag from the top, so that’s good news. We dive head first down a shockingly steep water slide. It’s supposed to be fun but it mostly just terrifies me. I’m going so fast that I’m worried I won’t stop before I reach the end. What if this slide is only designed for 100 pound Vietnamese children and not giant westerners? Will I die? I get so much water in my face that I have to close my eyes, which makes it even more terrifying because I can’t see where the slide ends anymore. I prepare for impact, but then miraculously come to a full stop without running into a wall. Phew.

We jump off the end of the slide and make it back to our bag, which still has all of our belongings. Hooray! It’s pretty unlikely that the clientele here, a bunch of rich Russian tourists, would steal our backpack, but you never know. We try two more rides, or “games” as they’re called in the park. It’s either a weird translation, or someone doesn’t know what a game is. The first is like a half pipe that you ride in a blow up tube. Again, insanely steep. This time I do run into a wall, but not at full speed. The second ride is an extremely tall enclosed tube slide that connects to a giant out door bowl with a hole in the centre where you fall out and essentially exit the ride. The tube is made of 4 foot long segments that are all attached together, but not flawlessly. I can feel each ridge on my back as I go down, faster and faster through this dark tube. When I get to the biggest drop, I am blinded by water and am only aware that I’m outside in the bowl because of the sun shining through my eyelids. I try to open my eyes but still, water pours in, forcing them closed again. I free fall down into a pool of uncomfortably warm water, and the ride is over. I don’t know if I love or hate that ride. A for adrenaline but C- for whoever built it and didn’t smooth out the inside. Geez.

I hit my head on a pipe while climbing out of the pool, and moments later barely dodge a rogue mango that falls from a tree. I am not having a good day. At least our backpack still hasn’t been stolen. We head back to the beach where the sun is hidden by clouds, but the rain is still holding off. We go for another little swim. A huge man with a serious beer gut and sunburn screams, “You! Girl! Where you from?” and wades over to us. Oh no. Tamara responds that she’s from Switzerland, and before I have time to say I’m from Canada he’s elated and needs to show Tamara his Swiss watch. He then turns to me and starts saying something about chocolate and mountains. He thinks we’re both from Switzerland. I shall be Swiss today, why not? He’s flabbergasted by the fact that we’re backpacking around South East Asia and are only 22. I ask him where in Russia he’s from, guessing by his accent, and he says Siberia. He’s literally from Siberia. Not, “oh I live out in like Siberia, really far, you won’t have heard of it”. Real Siberia. That explains the sunburn. He says there’s always snow on the ground where he lives. When he asks us what hotel we’re staying at, I decide it’s a good time to give him a fake hotel name and get out of the water. He’s nice and I think just excited to practice his English, but nah.

We sit on our beach chairs and watch more people taking posey photos of themselves. I wish there were time stamps on my photos to prove how long they spent doing this. Everyone thinks they’re a god damn Victoria’s Secret model. Even one girl who has a horrible peeling sunburn on her back, with a new burn, I’m guessing from today, on the new skin underneath. Double sunburn. If I were her, I’d want no photographic evidence that it ever happened.

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We check out the aquarium before we leave, which is small but cool. I always love aquariums! This is one of the pros to coming on a day with very little tourism, we get to look at all the exhibits without being crowded (Toronto Aquarium anyone?). While in the tunnel I notice something strange. I’m not 100% sure, but it looks like all the stingrays have had their stingers cut off. I’m not a marine biologist so I’m not really sure how the end of their tails are supposed to look, but all of them have what seem like strangely short tails with blunt edges. I suppose I just don’t want to know.

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All the nemos and dorys!

When we leave the aquarium it’s 4:30 and there doesn’t seem like there’s much else happening at Vinpearl unless we want to go shopping, so we head back to the mainland via cable car. We share a car with an English couple, one of whom is terrified. He calls the cable car a death trap. I think it’s probably the safest mode of transportation I’ve taken in South East Asia thus far.

We go back to the hotel for the usual cold shower and clothing swap before going out for dinner. Things at Vinpearl were pretty expensive, so we skipped lunch. 55,000 dong ($2.50) for a fruit shake? I don’t think so. Now I’m hungry! We find a sweet restaurant a couple doors down from our hotel. We’re confused about how we’ve never checked the menu before, because we’ve walked past it every day. They have four menus. A seafood menu, salad menu, soup menu, and one for everything else. I am overwhelmed by choices! Everything is so cheap and looks so delicious. I order fresh spring rolls and a stir-fried squid and vegetable dish. Tamara gets a pumpkin soup and spring rolls too. The food comes quickly and is so delicious. We’re disappointed that we didn’t find this place sooner or we would have come for every meal!
Just before we ask for the bill, who walks in but overly-enthusiastic Siberia man. He yells “Switzerland!” and shows us his photos of himself at Vinpearl. Our waitress asks if we’d like to sit together and pulls a chair over for him. He leaves to wash his hands and we ask for the bill immediately. She apologizes for suggesting that we sit together and we explain that we don’t actually care but would have left soon anyway. We pay, wave goodbye to our rouge Russian pal and he says “aurevoir!”. We know we will not, in fact, see him again because we’re moving on to Dalat tomorrow, and I’m certain he won’t leave Nha Trang for his entire vacation.

We have an early bus to catch tomorrow, so we go back to our hotel for an early night’s sleep.