Shopping Saigon

Today I have no plans but to explore the bustling city of Saigon.  I have no idea where I am going or what I will see, I merely pop in and out of shops as they call to me and explore what’s inside.  The only thing I know I must do is to try Avocado Coffee, so I head towards Shelter Coffee & Tea’s tiny little shop at 13 Lê Thánh Tôn, with little detours along the way.

The busy streets give way to a quieter area in District 1, which contains Japantown.  Here is where you’ll find this little green monster.  Sinh To Bo.

IMG_20161123_103614

I place my order at the cash register and then head up the narrowest little staircase to a seating area upstairs.  I am the only one here so I take the opportunity to spread my arms above my head and try and fan my armpits under the aircon.  It’s so hot outside that I am sweating rivers.  I’ve just about run out of tissues to mop myself up with.

In no hurry, my coffee arrives.  It looks like a cup of vomit, I won’t lie and it takes a few deep breaths and a stern talking to, to actually lift the cup to my mouth and drink.  But when I do, I am pleasantly surprised.  It’s a thick, rich texture almost as though it has icecream in it and it tastes sweet, I’m assuming from condensed milk.  It really is very yummy in actual fact and I pat myself on the back for being such a brave girl.

After a bit more wandering I come across a modern looking mall – it happens to be Parkson.  The blasting aircon inside makes me decide that this is where I’ll find lunch today.  Whatever it is, I will eat it in the icy cold aircon, so my pants will have a chance to unstick themselves from my legs.

20161123_124938

On a food floor of the mall, I come by a restaurant serving local dishes and decide that’s fine by me.  I still haven’t tried banh xeo and lucky for me, it’s on the menu.  What I’m not expecting is such a massive crispy pancake that could actually feed two people.  It looks absolutely delicious though, with a scattering of perfectly fresh herbs and salad leaves that I give it a really good go.  Banh xeo is made of a rice batter, which is then stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp and green onions, along with the herbs and salad greens that have accompanied it.  Somehow you tear some off and incorporate the herbs while trying to dip it into a beautiful light dressing and trying not to let the whole thing crumble in a mess before it gets to your mouth.  But when you do finally get it there, it’s a true taste explosion.  I love this lunch.  I later find out it’s meant to feed a family.  Oops.

Probably because of the huge amount of food I’ve just eaten, I suddenly feel quite tired and weary and could quite easily head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.  But I spy a nail salon and looking down at my poor feet, I decide I will treat myself.  You know who won’t be getting a treat?  The poor girl that has to repair these wrecks.  The weeks of trudging along dirty, rain-soaked streets and lack of scrubbing brush or proper soaking facilities means that they look absolutely filthy, my toenails are caked with dirt and my heels are cracking.  But she does a hell of a job and in no time at all, they almost look amazing.  The pedicure takes around an hour and only costs me around AUD$30.  I pay her quite a tip in compensation for the possibility that she will never be able to unsee my feet in her nightmares and head towards the hotel for cocktail hour.

Tomorrow, I depart Vietnam for a few days of unwinding in that good old second home of mine.  Reflecting, I now feel like I’ve seen enough of Saigon and I’m happy to leave her behind for greener pastures, but I’m glad I came back to see her on my own terms.

Return to the Mekong

Thought I’d finished with the Mekong on this trip?  Well, not quite.  I’m about to board a bus to visit the Mekong Delta with Urban Adventures doing all the hard work.  The meeting point for today is outside the stunning Saigon Opera House, so I get a glimpse of some of Saigon’s beautiful french colonial style buildings while I wait.

My guide for the day is Thanh and he seems like a great guy.  Jumping on a minibus, we head off for the village of My Tho, about 2.5 hours away from Saigon.  I love getting out of the city.  These days always end up the best, so I can’t wait to see what today has in store for me.  I watch the streetscape change and flash glimpses of everyday life at me through the bus window as we move further and further away from the city.

Once we reach My Tho, it’s a short boat ride to the start of our journey through the Mekong Delta.  The Mekong Delta consists of many islands Today, we will visit two – Con Phung (or Phoenix) and Thoi Son (or Unicorn).

Exotic fruit abounds when we enter the clearing on Thoi Son.  Hot pink dragonfruit, spikey pineapples and ripening bananas great our eyes and after Thanh shows us how to carry a traditional bamboo pole basket across his shoulders, we take a seat to enjoy some tea and a plate of beautiful tropical fruit which includes dragonfruit, pineapple, mango and pawpaw.  Nearby a small group of musicians perform traditional songs.

Cacao tasting is also on the agenda as we pass by a fallen fruit.  Thanh breaks it open and we get to pull off one of the seeds and suck off the white pulp covering the seed, which tastes kind of tangy.

Wandering over the rough pathways of the village gives us a good glimpse of life on the island.

Honey awaits us at our next stop.  Here, we are given nut snacks and a taste of local honey liquor which tastes amazing.  Strong, but amazing.  This is one of many cottage industries that help sustain life in the Mekong Delta.

Our visit to Phoenix Island starts with a Cotton Candy making business.  We are shown how the coconuts are shredded by machine and heated to become toffee-like before being sliced and wrapped and eventually sold to a customer.  The cotton candy comes in a bunch of different flavours including ginger and coffee and tastes yummy.  The process was really interesting to watch.

Xe Loi are a kind of motorised cart.  We are handed out helmets…very sexy helmets…

20161122_121454

…and climb aboard for our next stop.  It’s such a fascinating ride and a great way to see the island, even if the ride is a little bumpy at times.

We head through the end of town and out on to some even smaller, more rural roads.  It feels like we are speeding along due to the bumpy ride and the tiny pathways we are travelling on.  We dodge tree branches (hence the helmets) and narrowly miss crumbled pathways.  And then all of a sudden, there are three xe lois.  What happens now?

So much fun!!  We do safely arrive at our lunch destination though and dish after amazing dish of food is bought out for us to enjoy, along with nice cold beers.  The restaurant is a couple of large outdoor pavillions with tables and chairs so can still enjoy the outdoors, with chickens running amok nearby.  The rain has started, but we have plastic raincoats and full bellies and we are having an awesome day.

20161122133115_IMG_0055

Leaving the restaurant behind – I could have sat there for much longer – but our time is coming to an end.  We walk down narrow concrete steps to some wooden sampans lined up against the dock and begin our paddle down the Mekong towards the bigger boat.  I’m not going to lie, getting from the sampan to the boat was a little nervewracking, but we all managed just fine.

With everyone safely back on the ferry to My Tho, Thanh hands out fresh coconuts, shell partially removed, straws inserted, for us to sip.

20161122_134949

And with that, the day is over, and we are back on the minibus and heading back to Saigon.  This has been the best.day.ever.  Well, not quite, but close.  Very close.

Cảm O’n Vung Tau

Emboldened by the lack of illness from the Ca Phe Den with ice that I had for breakfast yesterday, and despite the constant drizzle of rain today, I head back to Bistro 9 to try the Ca Pha Sua Da – Vietnamese coffee with milk (and ice) and am rewarded with yet another delicious cup of wake-me-up.

20161121_064214

Watching the construction work take place at the Rex Hotel across the road, I sit in stunned contemplation.  Safety is certainly not a priority here as the helmetless foreman, cigarette in hand, leans over a window opening (no safety harness) to direct a truck that is back up below.  Another helmetless worker dumps wheelbarrows full of concrete rubble over a similar window opening (again no harness) into the truck, three stories below, rubble and dust freefalling down the front of the construction.

20161120_082405.jpg

Back home, that job would have been stopped – or rather, it wouldn’t have even started when the workers rocked up sans safety boots.  A harness carrying sacks of cemet is pulled up to another window, swaying madly and on an angle.

The rain seems to have settled in, and with nothing much more I want to do out in the heat, I people watch from my hotel window, watching people go about their Monday morning.

20161120110955_IMG_974720161120110647_IMG_974120161120110601_IMG_97362016-11-20 10.24.01

I bid farewell to Moon and Uncle G at the dock, having had a really nice time, and board the ancient Russian ferry back to Saigon.

My next hotel is a cute little place called Townhouse 50, not far from the Ben Thahn Markets, which I have no intention of visiting.  My last trip here consisted of a t-shirt and knickers hunt after my luggaged failed to arrive in Vietnam at the same time as I did, so I consider my trip to the markets done.

What I didn’t get to see was the War Remnants Museum and that is particularly what I wanted to visit this time around.  There’s plenty of time to do that this afternoon, so I take  a deep breath and head out onto the crazy streets of Saigon.  Its quite the journey trying to find my way amongst the maze of streets, dodging scooters that have decided to ride on the footpath and trying not to stack it on broken, upended bits of concrete, but I finally make it.

Four floors of exhibitions relating to what the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”, and all of them packed with tourists.  Tourists going the wrong way around the exhibition, tourists standing in front of exhibits for way too long while bigger and bigger groups of tourists cluster around them…I should have known better.  Normally, I would grin and bear it but for some reason today, it is really grating on me.  I just can’t make the most of my time here and I’m annoyed (in hindsight, I should have returned early one morning before everyone else like I normally do instead of braving the afternoon session).

So I return to the hotel area instead and make it in time for happy hour at the MZ Wine Restaurant.  I’ll start exploring tomorrow.

A Reason for Cold Showers

How was your bath? you ask.

COLD.  It was cold.  I turned on the taps, popped in some bubble bath, cracked myself a cold drink and was all ready to get in the bath when my toe realised that this was not the haven of relaxation I was after.  Oh dear, the bath will have to wait.  Luckily, it’s so freakin hot in Vung Tau that a cold shower doesn’t really matter.

I’ve got one last day of exploring in Vung Tau because tomorrow I head back to Ho Chi Minh.

For breakfast I’ve had enough of eggs, which is basically what I’ve been living off for breakfast and dinner the last couple of days.  I’m so sick of eggs.  So sick of them in fact, that I throw my freshly cooked ones into the bin and head to the streets in search of a ‘real breakfast’.  Bistro 9 comes to my rescue.  With an omelette.

20161120_081126

It’s a really good omelette though.  Throwing caution to the wind, I also order a Ca Phe Den – black Vietnamese coffee.  With Ice.  Yes, I know, don’t drink anything with ice in it.  But you know what, it feels ok here and let’s face it, the hotel is just around the corner if I need to spend the rest of the day there.  And besides, it’s delicious.

20161120_081020

This morning Uncle G is taking me to the Worldwide Arms Museum.  Robert Taylor managed to amass an enormous collection of uniforms, models and weapons from across all wars and all 52 years worth of collecting are now on display here.  Entry is 100,000 dong and the museum is set in a beautiful colonial building.  An army of handsome male models proudly display war time uniforms of different countries and eras, adorned with massive furry hats, pompoms and pouffs, heavy wollen coats and skirts – all of which would be heatstroke-inducing in this climate.

There are rare firearms, photos and other memorabilia all housed here – quite an amazing collection.

After leaving Uncle G at his apartment, I decide to head out and make the most of my last afternoon in Vung Tau.  Despite the oppressive humidity (thank goodness for the cold shower in my room, huh), I stroll down the waterfront in search of Bach Dinh, Villa Blanch or the  White Villa as it is known and depending on who you are talking to.

20161120150854_IMG_9883

Bach Dinh is a colonial era mansion overlooking the South China Sea and it was built as a retreat for French Governor General Paul Doumer on the site of a former Nguyen Dynasty Fortress.  Doumer was an important force in the major expansion of infrastructure in the capital, most notably the bridge across the Red River and he went on to become French President until his assassination in 1931.

The house displays a collection of China recovered from a ship that sank off the coast, but the actual house itself sits in a state of neglect, which is a shame.  Though, for 5,000 dong, it is still worth a visit – even if just for a whisper of breeze from above the ocean.  The views from the massive windows are fantastic

20161120150912_IMG_9884

Tonight is buffet night at the Red Parrot.  That also means 2-for-1 drinks.  Woo hoo – Jack Daniels coming right up!  The buffet is a Western style and is pretty good.  The venue is cool too, decorated with flags and a host of memorabilia.

20161120_181650

It’s been nice to spend time with Uncle G and I’m so glad that I gave Vung Tau a good few days to feel the vibe and explore without rushed timelines and enjoy chilling out and dining on magnificent seafood, rather than just a night or two.  It’s not something I usually do but something that I seem to be gravitating towards more and more – simple things and relaxed time.  I still need my days of go, go, go, but relaxing is good too.  I must be getting old.

Day 3 in VT

I have to swap accommodations today due to a ‘booking mishsp’.  Uncle G is furious because, like me, he’s a planner and had this room booked for me well in advance.  I don’t mind so much firstly cause I get to try out another place and secondly because this one has a bath!  Besides, Darby Park is right next door to Sunshine.

But that doesn’t happen til later so the three of us take a 45 minute taxi ride out to Long Son for lunch.  Only in Asia would you consider doing this because in Australia it would cost you probably $100.  This trip costs about $40 AUD.

On arrival to Long Son Island, floating restaurants lay bobbing on the water just a quick boat ride from the dock.

Moon chooses Lang Be – she sure knows how to pick great places to eat and after negotiating our way over the planks to a table, she begins to plan the menu.  The food is fantastic, yet again.  I never usually eat so much seafood back home in Australia, because it is expensive.  But here it seems as though there’s hardly a meal where seafood is not included.  

It is quiet here at the moment, as we have arrived before the rush, but as we eat groups of people start arriving and the place fills up quickly.  I could imagine spending a whole afternoon here with a group of friends, swinging away on one of the hammocks, beer in hand eating delicious seafood.  Heaven.

Oyster farming is big business here with many families enjoying an increased standard of living thanks to the income earned.  The oysters raised here are apparently much bigger than those from the sea.  Once harvested, the oysters are sold to farms or to the floating restaurants on the Rang River, like the one we are dining in.

Long Son Island is a fairly untouched place and not on the usual tourist trail.  I love places like this, places that you usually find only with the knowledge of locals.

Back in Vung Tau and settled into my new abode, I decide to head out to hunt for a glass of white wine down along the front beach.  Gripping onto my bag and camera tightly, because EVERYONE has told me to be careful around here, I’m not sure where I’m heading, so I just keep walking until I find somewhere just right.  That place is the Summer Wine Bar – perfectly named.

While I’m sipping my wine, which is not the best wine I’ve ever drunk, but still nowhere near as undrinkable as that ‘mystery wine’ in Lyon earlier in the year (trust me, if I find a glass of wine undrinkable, it must be bad), two cops pull up on a single bike and sit for a while.  I wonder what they are doing, until I see an old lady struggle to her feet and lift a bamboo pole laden with wares to her shoulders.  She’s been asked to move on.  At least she doesn’t have to run when she sees them coming, as happens in Hanoi.

The breeze occasionally wafts in from the beach but otherwise its still really warm.  My mind keeps drifting back to one thing – I can have a bath tonight.

The sun beats down on me as I walk along the foreshore.  People are out enjoying the afternoon, fishing, walking, exercising, cyling or just chatting.  Little sandcrabs scurry along the beach, the tide lapping after them and there are shells – real shells like I haven’t seen for years.  It seems this is quite an idyllic spot.

 

Oh My Ho May!

I’m excited that today my clothes are getting washed in something other than a hotel basin or under the shower.  I’m dreaming about picking up the bunch of fresh smelling clothes, holding them to my nose and cuddling them.  I’m taking advantage of this opportunity and putting out everything that I’m not wearing.  I never value clean clothes as much as I do when I’m travelling.

Moon and I are going shopping today which really consists of sorting out a local SIM card, stopping by the florist shop where she works and chatting over a drink at a local cafe.  By the time we return to my room, my clothes have returned, all neatly folded or hangared.

Ho May Park is our destination for the afternoon.  You can drive up there but it’s more fun to take the cable car.  It costs 300,000 dong which includes a return cable car ride and entry to the park.  You could be forgiven for thinking the park was abandoned.

But, despite it being a quiet weekday, there was a load of attractions – carriage rides, temples, fishing, dog and monkey circus, ziplining, wild animals, fair rides, 5D movies, waterslides and seemingly the most popular of all – a waterpark.  There is, in fact, so much to do here that you could easily spend the whole day here.  Or stay overnight!  Because there’s also a resort and a hotel.

Not to mention the views from top which stretch out over the bay of Vung Tau’s front beach.

Uncle G points me towards a restaurant which is currently closed (permanently or just for now, I’m not sure) and prompts me to photograph its menu.  Strange request, but OK.  Here it is…

So this is Ho May Cultural & Ecotourism Park right?

What you probably might not learn on a visit to Ho May, is that this was the site of an Australian radar station during the Vietnam War and one of the structures, a viba radar station, remains on the site as a historical monument, as Ho May Park now sits on what was known by the soldiers as Radar Hill or VC Hill.

Uncle G served in the Vietnam War in the 1st Ordnance Field Park stationed at the 1st ATF Base Nui Dat (Clay Hill), which is now part of the Ba-Ria Vung Tau Province in which Vung Tau lies.  In fact, here’s a photo…he’s the one under the umbrella behind the chair – you can see that a dislike of having photos taken runs in the family!

Uncle G Behind Chair

It is recommended that when visiting Ho May Park, you do so in the late afternoon so that when you leave, you can watch the sun set over the ocean.

20161118174325_IMG_9636

Welcome to the Seaside

I am embarking on my first ever taxi ride in Vietnam and although the hotel called the taxi, panic was simmering below the surface.  When the driver starts asking questions that I don’t understand, I thrust the piece of paper with the hydrofoil ferry address on it at him, hoping that he’s asking for the address.  Seems he was and a short while later we arrive at the street, but where number 5 should be, there is nothing but corrugated iron fences surrounding what used to be a row of shopfronts.  The driver perseveres and a few numbers along, we appear to have arrived at the docks or at least a driveway with a sign that has a picture of a boat on it.  I pay the driver 51,000 dong and grab my bags.  Common sense leads me to walk straight ahead towards the water and I finally see a red sign with Vina Express written on it.  I follow the signs like a breadcrumb trail until I come to a small box office next to a cafe. I am in the right place.  Now I wait.

There are other people here, a couple with an unmistakeable Aussie accent, feeding and cuddling a stray cat, a can of Tiger beer at his elbow (it’s 9.30am), a couple of cyclists and other assorted couples.

HCMC’s hydrofoils have been shut down for years after a space of at sea mishaps which included numerous fires.  They have only just been relaunched, but this is possibly not a longterm plan.  My uncle usually takes the bus.  So I hope this trip is all good.

The hydrofoil hums away dockside, and I’ve gotta be honest, it looks a bit dodgy.  At least there seems to be plenty of lifejackets.

 

Being a Thursday, the ferry to Vung Tau is not busy.  Vung Tau is a seaside destination for HCMC locals you see and most visitors are day-trippers.  Apart from that its populated by ex-pats, Vietnam vets and oil-rig workers.

I pop down a Kwell and pray to the seagods to give me a smooth ride.  The boat takes off pretty much dead on 10am.  Being such an old beast, the boat is incredibly noisy and I found my earphones to be a blessing.  I look around the boat, noting the brocaded turquoise curtains which would have been fresh and new at one stage but like a 70 year old man who struggles to maintain and repair everything himself with whatever he can find around the house rather than pay to get it fixed properly, they have been left out of the maintenance schedule.  And there’ll be no good photos out of these plastic scratched plastic view holes.  The trip is smooth and uneventful though and in just 1 hour and 20 minutes, my first glimpse of Vung Tau appeared through the grotty, scratched windows.

20161121_120459

My uncle is waiting at the end of the jetty with his girlfriend, Moon, and after hugs and hellos, we sit down at the dockside restaurant for some beers and lunch.  I find out that the ferries are 20 year old Russian things.

20161121_111655

After lunch, we catch a taxi to the apartments where I will be spending the next few nights.  The grounds of the Sunshine Residences are lovely with flowering frangipani flowers and a sparkling blue swimming pool.  The room is simply furnished but contains most of what I’ll need, the rest we take care of at a local department-style supermarket.

 

I have the afternoon to relax and unpack my desperately dirty clothes which I put aside for the washing service tomorrow.  Dinner is at Gahn Hao, a seafood restaurant set overlooking the beach.  The food, which Moon selects for us, is simple and tasty, not to mention extremely well valued compared to Australian prices.  Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos (extremely unlike me!) so here’s one I stole ‘borrowed’ off Gahn Hao’s website…

canh_ganh_hao-300x201.jpg
Courtesy of Nhà hàng Gành Hào

As you can see, it’s quite the pretty little setting.  I like what I’ve seen of Vung Tau so far and wonder what this quiet little island has to offer.  Tomorrow I’ll will find out.

Note:  subsequent to this trip, the old Russian hydrofoil ferries were removed from service and replaced with new Pacific Express boats.

Stepping up the Pace

Right, so back on the solo travel path and I’m heading back to one of the first cities I ever visited.  I wanted to come back here for a few reasons.  One was because I’d only spent a day or two here last time on a group tour and didn’t feel confident enough to go out and do my own thing, which meant I didn’t really see or do anything other than walk around the streets getting gawked at.  Another is that my uncle in now living closeby to this city for part of the year and I thought it would make a good opportunity to visit him.  So after I leave Laos this morning, I’ll be arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon for a re-do visit.

My transfer to the airport is nice and early – just the way I like it – but it can’t be said that there’s a lot to keep you entertained at Wattay International Airport.  You must wait to go through to the customs area and trust me when I say that the “10 minutes” that the guard indicates to you, will in fact be more like half an hour.  My first flight is to Phnom Penh – if only I had not had two months of unemployment and I could have stopped in Cambodia for a few days.  The landing is rough and the plane swerves a lot on the runway as it lands.  Off the plane, through the x-ray machine and back onto the plane 15 minutes later, though it took what seemed to be a good 45 minutes before everyone boarded the plane in a painfully slowly manner.  The plane was half full of advanced age travellers, perfectly pressed and ready for their ‘sanitary experience of Asia’ and the other half with what can only be described as excesses of luggage that should really have been checked in but currently being shoved into every nook and cranny on the plane.

An uneventful 1/2 hour later during which the hosties unbelievably pulled out their service troller and delivered the quickest run of drinks I’ve ever experienced on a plane – almost throwing bottles of water at slow and unsuspecting passengers.

We are back down on the tarmac but after an hour, my transfer is still nowhere to be seen.  I’m on the brink of booking a deluxe room at the Sheraton just to be eligible for their hotel transfer when he finally arrives.  The drive to the hotel is interesting, mainly because its unbelieve to see just what the Vietnamese can and will load onto a scooter.  Suitcases, bottled water and even a ladder.  It all fits somehow.

20161116_160942

Tonight I am staying at the Hong Vina hotel, mainly for its close proximity to the dock that I will be using to get to Vung Tau tomorrow.  The hotel is comfy enough, even without the musty smell.  Staff are super friendly and the best bit – a wonderful hot shower, with good water pressure, fully enclosed so my clothes don’t get wet, which has not been the case for the last two weeks.

Feeling fresh, a quick walk around the streets reveals an up and coming cool scene with old cement lined, roller-door shops being replaced by trendy little cafes.  It also unveils a brand new restaurant called Nha Hang Di Mai where I am taught (no doubt after much dread at watching my feeble attempts) to use chopsticks properly.  I ordered a very extravagant meal of Bia Ha Noi, Hanoi Spring Rolls and a Chicken Salad with Banana shoots.  The food was amazing, the service impeccable and the surroundings achingly cool.  Go there.

On the way back to my hotel, I stop at a little all-purpose store to grab some water and beer and am delighted to find myself having a short conversation with the owners about kangaroos and Australia.  The kangaroos can wait though cause I’ve got a ferry to catch tomorrow.

Going Back

In just three weeks I’ll be off again – and though that seems the story of my life, it will be the last trip on the cards for at least a year.  Money making beckons.

So where am I off to?  Somewhere I feel most alive – Asia.  After my mega, sight-seeing laden trip to Europe in May, I am craving a trip where I can just experience the life and the culture rather than lining up for sights.  I’ll be starting in Thailand, heading through Laos, staying in Vietnam and ending, of course, in Singapore.

The bit I am most nervous about is going back to Ho Chi Minh City.  And I’m not really sure why.  I last visited in 2008, still a relative newbie to travelling – and certainly not solo travelling.  I think that my first memory of Ho Chi Minh – where I found myself standing at a five way roundabout with no traffic lights and what seemed like a million scooters coming at me – is some thing that will never leave me.  And although I’ve been back to Vietnam, Hanoi’s traffic is nothing compared to the sheer panic-inducing volumes that I will be encountering in HCM.

The Delights of Early Morning Hanoi

Last night I double-checked the internet to make sure that my hotel had 24 hour reception.  It also had 24 hour security, which was comforting to note.

So when I crept downstairs at 4am (yes 4AM) for my Good Morning Hanoi tour, I was surprised to see the reception area blanketed in darkness.  The sound of the darkness was quickly broken by the sound of snoring and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the outline of the receptionist asleep across four chairs behind the reception desk and the security guard asleep on the front couch.  The door of course was locked, an umbrella shoved through the handles.  I guess you can’t argue that 24 hour security and reception aren’t available – you just have to wake them up first!  Welcome to Hanoi.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I sat down on the bottom step of the stairwell and decided to wait it out.  It wasn’t long before my guide in his taxi rocked up out the front of the hotel, and with a loud rap on the door – security was in place.  The poor guy must have been frightened out of his sleep and I felt terrible, but in the world of tourism where guests would be arriving at all times of the day and night, I would hope he may be used to it.

My guide is a super friendly chap, especially given the hour of the morning and he is incredibly eager to show me his city early in the morning.  It rubs off and I can’t help but feel excited to see it.

Our first stop is a wholesale flower market on the outskirts of the old quarter.  Row after row of all sorts of beautiful flowers are for sale here, colours and scents galore.  There are people weaving in and out all over the place, but my guide says this is very quiet – a result of the present economy.

We take a seat at a stall on the side of the market and the guide is sad to hear we just missed the sticky rice lady.  Luck, however, is on our side, because she does another swing around and very soon we are blessed with two portions of sticky rice on huge banana leaves – one sticky rice with beans and the other with peanuts.  I say blessed, because this food is amazing!  Picking at the rice with our fingers, the rice goes down an absolute treat, and although I’m not a fan of beans, I can’t even taste them.  This is the way to start the day.

Next up is the fruit and vegetable market and this place is really humming.  There are all sorts of fruits and vegetables here – massive apples, abundances of limes and dragon-fruit, people unloading and reloading goods left right and centre, and things I’ve never seen before.  And I can smell mangoes (did I mention already that the mangoes in Hanoi are THE best?  Well, they are).  I feel a little in the way, as woman struggle with heavy loads in and out of the market alleyways.  It’s a real mind buzz for this time of the morning.

Separated from the fruits, are the herbs and vegetables.  The smell when you enter the section where the herbs are being sold is incredible – just like the food it will adorn, coriander and mint, beautiful fresh smells, line the inside of my nostrils.  I can only image buying bunches and bunches of these wonderful ingredients and making something great out of them, but we aren’t here to buy.

Outside the stalls, my guide buys some fresh bread and we stand on the bridge overlooking the markets, while I munch on my beautiful fresh roll, chatting about the market and stuff.

DSC09855

The view from up here gives a great overview of where I’ve just been and is a refuge from all the trolleys and soggy floors, and it’s buzz is just as electric, but the smells of wandering through the markets cannot be forgotten.  I am so glad I booked this tour, it’s things like this – seeing the heart of where the locals are and what they do – that makes travelling so much more valuable.

DSC09861

The sky starts to lighten and the humidity jumps into action as we approach the square near Hoan Kiem.  People are jogging, walking and exercising all over the place.  Little dance and aerobic classes are starting and apparently I am going to try some laughter yoga.  This is a surprise.  It’s even more of a surprise that I’m staying for the whole class.  I have no idea what is being said, but the group leader welcomes me and motions to me to join in, so I just copy whatever everyone else is doing.  It’s a strange class and I’m not sure how this would compare to a laughter yoga class in Australia, but being with the locals in their circle and sharing a part of their daily ritual feels damn good.  A few other foreigners join in towards the end of the class so I’m not alone.  This feels nice.

Our last stop for this morning’s tour is coming up, but my guide quickly shows me the best spot to photograph the red bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake…

DSC09878

The last stop is what every visitor to Hanoi should not leave without trying.  Pho Bo (beef pho).  It’s practically the national dish.  And although there are different types of pho, the beef one is the best. You’ll find pho all over the city and people will argue over which they feel is the best, but this one that we tried from Pho Ga Bun Thang (I think) it was simply amazing.  The broth was nice and salty (not too salty), the beef was really nice and tender and it was just, well, incredible.  And an incredible way to end what has been an amazing morning in Hanoi.  If you are going to Hanoi, do the tour.  Yes it’s a 4am start, but you’re on holidays, you can sleep later.  Have a real experience.

The tour is over and my guide calls a taxi to take me back to my hotel.  I’m going to rest now.  Because it is only 8am and I have the rest of the day to see what I want before I leave tomorrow.

 DSC09885

After a cold shower and a rest, it was time to see the last of what I could fit into my last day.  I headed for the famous Metropole Hotel, but the area was cordoned off due to a fire drill.  So I just wandered the streets, silently sweating to death.

By chance, and attracted by the bright colours, I stumbled across the Hanoi Police Museum.  Newly opened, the museum is free, but a guide is called to show you through once you arrive.  They give you an overview of each room, but happily leave you enough time to read the exhibits on your own.  It’s cool having a personal guide in the room once you have read the notes because you can instantly turn around and ask questions!

The displays were really well set out and easy on the eye and the exhibits were very interesting spelling out the role of the police force in Hanoi since it’s inception.

It’s another one of those museums you wouldn’t necessarily see elsewhere and I’d recommend a stop by.  I continued walking the streets half heartedly wondering whether I should have stayed at the hotel a little later and avoided the sweltering humidity.  I wasn’t feeling very inspired to keep going and I had used up all my laughter this morning but then I saw a beacon in the distance.

It’s safe to say that I popped back by Fanny’s only because my pants were melting into my legs and I needed some air-conditioning urgently…and Fanny’s just appeared like a mirage in a dessert (ha, I mean desert).

DSC09914

An icecream sundae and a good half an hour in the air-conditioning sorted me right out and a plan of attack developed for the rest of the afternoon.

Starting with a visit to KOTO, a little walk away, for lunch.  KOTO (know one, teach one) is a social enterprise which trains underprivileged and disadvantaged kids to work in the hospitality industry.  It was founded by Vietnamese born Australian Jimmy Pham over ten years ago.  Every six months, KOTO recruits up to 30 young people from the streets, aged between 16-22 following recommendations from a large number of sources (ie. those dealing with poverty and trafficking).  They undergo a two year training program and at the end of it offers them the opportunity to work in some of the best restaurants and hotels.  But you can come to KOTO’s restaurant and see for yourself the result of the foundation’s efforts.

20151106_123047

Everything else I planned to do this afternoon seemed to fall apart – graduations at the Temple of Literaure, the Citadel was closed (for the same reason I think) and the War Museum was closed too.  But it didn’t really matter because at the end of the day, the excitement and vibrancy and the feel, sights and smells of Hanoi are what you come for and that’s exactly what you get by just being here.

2015-11-06 20.38.08

And, yes, this is a train track through the middle of a residential area.  Remember, you’re in Hanoi now.