Vietnam

An Angel and a Devil in HCMC

He asked me if this was the carousel for the luggage from the Cebu Pacific flight from Manila.  I nodded.  He seemed in his late 60’s but still had some spring on his feet.  He was alone at the moment as his family would join him after Christmas.  He asked me where I was staying and I remarked Pham Ngu Lao.  “I wonder if it is near my hotel.”  Scrawled on a small notebook was “Sunny Hotel.  De Tham St.”  I offered to share a cab with him as it was near my street.  He introduced himself, “______.”  I gave him my name.  We shook hands.  I have made my first travel connection in Vietnam.  Or maybe he was an angel sent to be my travel companion in Saigon.

We headed to the line of cabs waiting outside the terminal and took the first one.  Big mistake.  I had let my guard down and should have looked for a Mailinh or Vinasun instead.  But I guess  I could be excused as I thought it was a taxi queu.  I did manage to have the cab driver use the meter but he pulled a fast one on us.  At the toll station, he quickly paid and then said we would just need to pay him D200,000!  What the heck!  I saw him give a D100,000 note and got a lot of change.  Besides, toll fees are per vehicle and not per person! “D20,000!” I insisted, showing him 2 D10,000 notes.  He stopped the cab on the side of a street and told me it was D200,000 plus 120,000 for the fare.  I would have stepped out of the cab right then and there if we were in some touristy area but not at some dark road at 1 in the morning.  “Okay, D200,000 and meter!”  We drove on.  Alex and I agreed that we both get off at his hotel and then we negotiate.  The driver seemed to understand as at the corner of De Tham and a min road, again not very lit and with hardly anyone on th street, he stopped and insisted we pay him before he brings us to the hotel.  He really didn’t seem threatening but his burly looks and menacing eyes were enough.  We paid him.  He drove us to the hotel which was less then 500m away and we got off.

Grandpa offered me to just stay at his twin room rather than have me walk back to Pham Ngu Lao where I had booked a dorm room at the Me Them Bed and Breakfast.  Of course, I accepted. I was sleepy and a little pissed-off with the scam.  The $25 room had a spacious twin room with a nice bathroom.  It was very clean and the staff, especially the girls attending to the free breakfast are really friendly.

Honestly, I thought the old man had some grand design on me but there was none.  He was simply a nice old man traveling alone and perhaps, because I told him I had travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia before where he was also headed, he might have seen me as some sort of tourist info.

Flying to Danang later.  Welcome to Vietnam!

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A Day at Halong Bay

We signed up for a $35 per person day trip to Halong Bay at the Little Hanoi Hotel.  It was relatively expensive compared to the one being offered by a Sinh Cafe Open Tour (a fake Sinh Cafe) for $28.  Julie came down with amoebiasis so she was unable to join us.

I really marvel at how the Vietnam tour operators are able to mix and match everyone to the tour they signed-up.  On the way to Halong City to board the boat, half of the bus were taking a 3-day tour and the other a 2-day tour.  The four of us–Rhoda, Eva, Jeanette, and I– were the only ones on a day trip. We were told by our guide that once at Halong, we were to be turned-over to another guy.  We arrived at the busy busy dock and were dropped off at the sidewalk nearby where other tourists were waiting.  A rigadon of mini buses and tourists ensued with some getting off one and getting on another.  A guy came and asked us to write our names on a piece of paper.  He talked to our guide and a friendly discussion ensued.  From their actions, especially with the other guy getting our guide’s documents, it appeared that they were haggling who was going to what tour.  I was right.  Our guide got the 2-day tour as his friend (referring to the other guy) wanted to go to Cat Ba Island which was on the 3-day tour itinerary.  “Oh,” he exclaimed when he saw us.  It kinda made me think that we’d been forgotten.

 

On the top deck of our boat

 

 

The boat captain

There were about 15 of us and we were led to our boat named Dang Tam.  Rooms were on the lower deck while the middle deck was the dining area.  It seemed well-maintained and clean.  We all settled ourselves in the dining area with us taking the 4-seat table and the rest (who were all whites) took the dining table.  Our guide explained how the trip would go.  We would cruise along the bay to Hang Sung Sot cave, disembark, explore the cave, then back to the boat.   Then we would be taken to a floating house for kayaking.  The 2-day tour people would of course stay overnight on the boat while the four of us return to the dock by speedboat.

Lunch was fish, tofu, rice, and lots of vegetable.  It was quite good and plentiful. There really wasn’t much to see at the bay as mist covered the far-off limestone cliffs.  When our boat finally entered the waters in the vicinity of the cave, I finally saw the Halong Bay I’ve seen in pictures.  Immense limestone outcrops studded the waters while floating houses took root at nearby cliff shores.  This was also the Halong Bay that was on everyone’s itinerary. The dock to the cave was filled with boats coming and going.

Steep concrete steps led to the mouth of Hang Sot cave.  It was a little traffic on the path that wound around the cave as there were so many people.  The cave is really huge and well-lit.  Our guide, who turned out to be very talkative and funny, pointed out different rock formations that resembled animals and people.  Most of the time though you’d have to kinda force your imagination to “see” it.  What was quite obvious  was a phallic-looking rock formation that was lit in pink!

 

The cave is really beautiful but I couldn’t help shake-off the “it looks like a theater show” feeling.  There’s definitely no spelunking here as the cave was obviously “fixed” to create that concrete path than led one to the chambers.  Considering that about half of the people going-in were elderly Europeans and North Americans, the people running the tourism show can’t expect any clambering going on.  There was full illumination from planted lights and I even spied a speak sticking-out from underneath some loose soil and rocks.  Perhaps there’s a light and sound show?

We exited the cave to a wooden walkway that led back to the dock.  Back at the boat, our guide asked us if we wanted to pay additional for the speedboat to tour us around the bay first before bringing us back to Halong as we were not doing any kayaking anyway.  We met our speedboat at one of the floating houses and for 300,000 VND we got about 15 minutes of touring the bay.

I’ve never taken a speedboat ride before and they’re not called speedboats for nothing.  We all shrieked as we roared away.  The young man who was our driver probably took it as yells for excitement as he suddenly swerved.  We shrieked again.  He swerved to the right.  “No no no no!” I turned to him, shaking both my head and gesturing wildly.  He understood we were in no mood for a roller-coaster ride especially since we had no life jackets.

 

He could speak no English but he tried his best to communicate with us.  He was gentle after all, even offering to bring us close to some cliffs and taking our picture.  The bay was really beautiful and I just wished we knew how to swim so we wouldn’t be afraid to go kayaking—the best way to explore.  The sound of the boat kinda distracted from the atmosphere but as soon as the engine’s were off and we drifted along the water, it was just perfect.

The 15-minute ride to Halong City was bumpy as we were going against the current but our driver expertly maneuvered the boat.  We were at full speed and it was really chilly.  Thankfully there water wasn’t rough or we would have been drenched with sea spray.

Someone met us at the dock and brought us to one of the waiting mini vans.  Several minutes later, people arrived, presumably day-trippers too and we headed back to Hanoi.  It way past dinner time when we got back to the hotel and people were just getting ready for the New Year’s Eve activities.

It’s a little insane to be doing Halong as a day trip.  The long travel time (4 hours each way) makes you spend more time on the road than on the boat.  The bay and the karsts are best explored slowly and dreamily.  I will definitely go back and explore the rest of the bay including Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha bay which I heard were even better.  In the meantime, I gotta learn how to swim so I can kayak with confidence.

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Charming Chau Doc

On a cyclo from the bus station to the hotel

When the Maih Lin mini-van pulled up in front or our hotel to shuttle us to the bus station, I knew we were gonna have trouble with our bags, especially my really big backpack that now contained rolled-up oil paintings from Saigon, some “Tintin in Vietnam” shirts and loads of souvenirs.  I even had a plastic bag that had 2 drums and a flute!  Thankfully, we had the back seat all to ourselves and the young French woman seated on front even offered her leg space for my smaller pack.  The Vietnamese guy at the 2nd row also took Francis’ luggage.  At the bus station, we transferred to the mini bus that looked more like a mini van.  If I had known it would be that small and with no luggage compartment, I would have paid the extra $5 for another seat just for our bags.  It was a little embarrassing stuffing our bags on the available empty space.  Francis managed to put his big bag at the small luggage compartment at behind the backseat.  The Vietnamese who helped us earlier in the shuttle motioned for me to put my backpack at the side.  Thank god coz 3 hours with a heavy pack on my lap was definitely torture.  The only non-Vietnamese were Francis and I and the French girl. I slept most of the way in spite of the zig-zag way our driver was driving.  A lot of tourists have commented on the way Vietnamese drivers drive.  But I didn’t feel it any more unusual or riskier than the way Manila bus drivers, especially the ones driving the ordinary buses,  run the roads.

The Bus Station From Nowhere

When we pulled-up at the bus station, my worst fear had come.  There was no taxi and we had to take a moto.  I have avoided taking a moto anywhere in Vietnam, especially in Saigon.  It’s just crazy how they drive and no way was I gonna be taking one and shrieking all the way.  We were the only ones that seemed to have arrived.   There were some parked mini vans, a string of stores, and some moto drivers.  It was a ghost town almost.    We headed to a row of stores to escape the burning sun.  Lo and behold, some cyclos came swarming before us together with the motos.  A woman from one of the stores  asked us where we wanted to go and she talked to some cyclos and arranged the trip for us.  The French girl was headed to a hotel  chosen from Lonely Planet for having friendly people.  We headed to Hai Chau which I booked through Hostelworld.  We each had our own cyclos with our packs in front.  In spite of the heat, it was  fun riding 30 minute  to the center of town.

hau Doc was a small town and so unlike Can Tho.  There didn’t seem to be much tourists and the locals don’t really mind you.  Our hotel was located at a street near a market beside the river.    “You are a handsome man,” the receptionist, who was probably gay, told me when we checked-in.  At the elevator, he asked me if I go to the gym.  The twin room was spacious and had big beds, really nice interiors, and even had a veranda!  A round table had a tea service set while the bathroom had a glassed-in shower stall.  It was the best hotel we had ever stayed in.

Francis as always, slept while I had late lunch at Bay Bong.  Lonely Planet was right on this one as having really good food and cheap prices.  I had the most delicious spring rolls ever!  It was unlike any I had ever tried as the wrapper seemed to have been made of vermicelli rather than the usual rice pancake.  The fresh fish cooked in a clay pot with fish sauce was tasty and melt-in-your mouth.  After the river cruise,  dinner was at Bay Bong again where we had 2 servings of spring rolls, eel in soup, fried rice, and fish again.  The place was packed and there was even a fine-looking elderly couple who got off a nice car for some dinner.  Must have come from one of the swankier hotels like the Victoria Chau Doc.  We strolled around town in search of  che, the cold dessert made of fruits and other stuff, which we found  at one of the  stalls fronting the pagoda.  There were hardly any people out on the streets.  The French girl we met at the mini van came ambling along and got a bowl of beef pho.  There we were seated at the tiny chairs and tables  telling our travel stories while the night breeze and the che cooled us.

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Mighty Mekong

We just finished a 2-h0ur boat trip we booked through our hotel in Chau Doc.  The tour took us to the floating houses and the fish farms.  It was a marvel how an entire community of floating houses and business establishments were built.  There was even a floating gas station.

We went to a house where we threw some fish food to a hole on the floor.  Suddenly the water came alive with really large fish jumping to eat the pellets.  They made so much racket that water was spraying all over.  It was really fun.

We disembarked at a village where the Cham people live.  Unlike the Vietnamese, the Chams are a minority people who practice Islam.  We walked through wooden plank bridges and arrived at a small community.  I got myself a colorful hat and some traditional fabric.  Our boat driver/guide pointed us a small path that led to the main street where the mosque was.  Children selling small cakes and waffles trailed us and kept chanting a well-rehearsed sales pitch in English that urged us to buy the cakes for only 6 for a dollar so they could have money as they were poor.  A small sign said,” Do not buy cakes from the children.  You may be colic if you eat it.” Enough said.

Floating house

Walking through the plank bridge, n seemed like a different world.  Old men peered from the windows of wooden houses on stilts.  Precarious bamboo bridges linked the houses to one another.  Some men wore sarongs and women had head scarves.  A small shop by the mosque was also selling some fabric.  We met a young good-looking guy who help acted as interpreter for me as the middle-aged women at the shop spoke no English.  Turns out, the guy lived there and was  from Seattle, WA where he was born and grew up.  He was a Cham and was home for vacation.  He hoped to make it to the Philippines someday as he heard a lot about it from some Filipinos in Seattle.

Back to the river, we went to some canals lined with houses on very tall stilts.  I figured they did this so when the river swells up during the wet season, they still remain dry.  The driver said that they were from Cambodia.  We also saw a couple of pretty pagodas.

I really liked this boat tour, though short, because we really got a glimpse of how people lived along the Mekong.  There were boat houses, small boats selling pho, and even one that was selling clothes!

Civilizations were built along rivers.    Meandering along the Mekong, I couldn’t help but be amazed on how the river has given and nurtured so much life.

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Can Do in Can Tho

After 5 hours on the bus from Saigon, we mercifully arrived in Can Tho yesterday.  The bus ride itself was a little adventure.  We bought our tickets for the Phuo Trang bus at STA Travel in Buivien.  We were told to show-up at 9am for the shuttle that will bring us to the Phuo Trang office.  They arranged a cab for us and a couple from England and we were accompanied by someone from STA Travel.  The bus office was about 20 minutes away and we were given our tickets.  We paid $8 at the agency but our tickets only cost about $4.  We were told the bus was leaving at 10:30.  There

Ho Chi Minh statue. This is the only one in Vietnam made of tin. Accordoing to Duy, this is a newer version as the old one had a funny smile.

was still about an hour to go.  There were a lot of locals waiting at the station and we noticed that minivans were coming and getting passengers who were being herded into them by someone who looked like the dispatcher.  I was beginning to get worried that we had been duped into thinking that we were taking a bus when it was actually a mini van which didn’t sound too appealing for a 5 hour trip.  “But we were given seat numbers,” I comforted myself.  Then the guy asked the English couple to board the minivan.  The girl pointed to us but the guy said that we would take the next one.  I asked a girl at the desk and she assured us that she would “take us to the bus.”  Then we were herded to a mini-van.  “We’re supposed to take a big bus,” I protested.  The smiling dispatcher said we were indeed going to a bus.  There was nothing we could do but ride.  At least we weren’t cramped at the back.  We rode through the Saigon traffic and about 30 minutes later, it clicked to me that the minivan was taking us to the Mien Tay bus station at An Lac District which is several kilometers outside central.  We were actually in a shuttle!  True enough, we turned to the bus station and we got off at the Phuo Trang office and there were the English couple!  We did take the big bus all the way to Can Tho.

The bust of HCM at Can Tho Museum

We stopped at a bus station half-way through the trip for lunch.  I had bahnmi with roasted pork which is similar to lechon.  It was really good, I ordered another one, this time with sticky rice.  I also had my dried jackfruit and bananas that I bought from the Ben Thay market the day before us a bus snack.

Can Tho is the industrial heart of the Mekong Delta and its size and modernity quite surprised me.  When we arrived at the bus station, one of the staff asked us where we were going and told us the company had free shuttle service.  Now,  that’s what you call customer service!  The English couple hadn’t made accomodation arrangements so they came with us to check out the Huy Hoang where we were staying.

I booked the hotel online through Mekong Tours and our second-class room for $16/night was clean and had a/c and a bathroom.  Plus it was very close to the riverside.  Duy from Couchsurfing met us for dinner at Capuccino and also brought us around for a quick tour.

I liked the vibes of Can Tho.  It was such a relief not to have someone offering you a ride on a moto or cyclo every minute.  It was big enough to have some modern feel and yet small enough to retain its provincial charm.  Nice cafes and restaurants like Mekong and Sao Hom facing the riverside added to its charm.  We really enjoyed the park where the only tin statue of Ho Chi Minh is.  It was around 8pm and there were locals enjoying the refreshing breeze coming from the river.  There were stalls selling fruit, meat balls, and grilled meet with lotus leaves which we liked.

Located near the center, the Can Tho Museum is a colonial building with a gigantic bust of Ho Chi Minh greeting you as you walk up the stairs to the lobby.  We barely had enough time to really enjoy the exhibits on Can Tho and Mekong history before a buzzer sounded to announce the closing hours at 9pm.  Walking home, we passed by a local bakeshop that had mini cakes going for only D17,000 which is dirt cheap.  I bought some custard-looking things and a small cake covered with icing and strawberries.  Yummy!

We took the boat that Duy had arranged for us for $20 for an 8-hour trip that includes the Cai Rang and Phung Diep floating markets as well as the canals and a stop at a garden for lunch.  On another boat were Duy, Angela from Couchsurfing, her friend, and Nick and Jan from New York who are here for a quick tour before returning home to the US then packing their bags for a 6-month teaching stint at the Can Tho University where Duy is in his senior year in English.

Monkey bridge up ahead

All my apprehensions about the river-worthiness of the boat vanished as soon as we set-0ff.  It was a small wooden boat powered by a motor that our driver, a woman, stirred at the back.  There were life vests but of course it would really stupid wearing one.  I just placed mine near me. There were bigger more touristy boats but that would mean not being able to go to the canals.  The wooden boats also had its charms and besides it was the more traditional means of transportation.

We knew we were at Cai Rang when we saw all the little boats selling vegetables and fruits.  There were cabbages, squash, dragon fruit, turnips, watermelon among others.  We bought some bahnmi and iced coffee from the boats. An hour later, we were at Phung Diep where we disembarked to go to the market.  It was 9am already which meant the market was over.  We just browsed through some of the stalls and had refreshments.  I had a really good tamarind juice.  The other boat went back to the city while we continued on to the canals.  This was the highlight of the trip.

I really enjoyed the canals as they were very peaceful and rural.  Some were narrow while others were much larger.  Only small boats could navigate them so it was very quiet and not too many boats were there.  Palm trees, shrubs, and grass lined the banks of the canals while houses with their kitchens and service areas opening to the river gave us a glimpse of how people in the Mekong lived.  It seemed so far removed from the city.  There were also small roads running parallel along the canals with an occasional moto or bike.  We passed a few bamboo bridges and some boats moored along the banks.  It was the most relaxing and wonderful boat ride I ever experienced especially at portions where our boat driver would cut the engine and just row.

We stopped for lunch at a garden where tables were set-up underneath cool cottages.  The price was reasonable and the food really good.  We invited our driver to have lunch with us.  I had an elephant-ear fish fried to a crisp and eaten with thin rice pancakes.  I thought the fish was eaten in itself and that the rice pancakes, noodles, and basil laid out on the table were for Francis’ order of noodles.  When his noodles soup arrived, I pointed to the rice paper.  Our driver pointed to the fish and demonstrated how to eat it.  She took a pancake, put basil leaves, some fresh noodles, fish, then rolled it.  She pointed to the dipping sauce.  It was very tasty and absolutely delicious.  It was one of my best dining delights in Vietnam.

After lunch, we continued through the canals until we finally exited back to the Mekong. We started singing songs to entertain ourselves much to the amusement of our driver.  Apparently, we could be heard as a group of men loading something on the boat started dancing and motioning us to get down.  It was fun.

We were back at the city about 3pm.

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Last Night in Saigon

The bus from Mui Ne dropped us off at Phanm Ngu Lao around 2pm already.  Except for the bahn mi I had at the stop, I hadn’t eaten anything.  Walking to Kim Hotel at Buiven, a middle-aged lady kept pestering us asking where we were going, if we already had a hotel, etc.  Seeing our backpacks she must have thought we were still scouting for a room.  We kept telling her we had a hotel already, but she just kept following us.  As we were about to turn into the street where Kim Hotel was, she probably noticed that we were ignoring here.  Seeing that she won’t get anything from us she shouted, “Go to the moon! Go to hell!”  Hahahahaha.

People's Committee Hall used to be the Hotel D'Ville during the French days

The Vietnamese we’ve encountered have generally been nice.  Even the sellers at the Bien Thay market are okay except for some really pushy ones who grab you and even block your path. It is kinda irritating but I find it more amusing.   Some are just there to really rip you off like the girl who sold me the “Tintin in Vietnam” shirt for D150,000 when it was only being peddled by other stores at D37,000.  Even the ones in Pham Ngu Lao are just D40,000.  But then again, when you get ripped-off it is mostly your fault for not taking the time to browse around and compare prices.  But just as there are bad sellers, there are also really good ones like the ladies I bought coffee and dried jackfruit from at Ben Thay Market later  in the afternoon while Francis heard mass at Notre Dame.  For the first time,  I actually felt I was buying and making decisions  for myself rather than being forced upon.  One lady, the one who spoke English, even exchanged my dollars for dong at a really good price.  “You help me, so I help you,” she said.  I bought some coffee, tea, dried jackfruit, dried bananas,  cashew nuts, and prawn crackers.  I would have bought some more if I had enough space as all those stuff are so expensive back home.

The motos are coming!

The dried bananas and jackfruit that I like so much and which cost so much in Manila were a real steal at only D170,000 per kilo for the jackfruit and D200,000 for the bananas. I also got these really cute embroidered laundry bags to give to people back home.

When I finally met up with Francis at Highlands Coffee, it was about 7pm and we started looking for dinner.  Instead, walking along Buiven and De Tham, we had a shopping spree instead.  We went to really nice shop selling arts and crafts and I got a couple of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments at a steal.  There were also lutes on sale and they were really cheap.  Unfortunately, it would be difficult to be lugging it around all the way to Cambodia and Thailand.  We also bought a some pirated Lonely Planet guidebooks for the heck of it.  It was our first ever to see a pirated book!  There were some really nice items at a store selling Sapa textiles but they were quite costly.  Francis had really wanted to buy some paintings as Vietnam is quite known for its reproductions.  I bought 2 small ones — Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” and “Lavender.”

So our last night in Saigon more or less turned into a shopping spree.  I would have wanted to go to Apocalypse Now but we’re really out of our budget now.

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Vietnamese Christmas

We spent Christmas eve in Mui Ne.  If not for the handful of resorts, mostly the higher-end ones, who were offering Christmas dinners and some decorations, the season could hardly be felt.  We at first planned to having the barbecue buffet at Sankara, but the D390,000 cost deterred us and we decided to just have dinner at LamTong again. It’s cheap, local, and very good.  There weren’t much of a crowd at Lam Tong, maybe some where having their dinner at a more expensive place.  We did come across a few people who were nicely dressed and seemed to be headed to something fancy.  As a treat, we ordered more than the usual at Lam Tong.  We had 2 orders of fried rice with meat, seafood springrolls, fried noodles with shrimp and squid, and grilled meat all washed down with a bottle of Tiger beer.  Burp!  We then headed to Wax which had some music and dancing going on.  There was a sizeable crowd there and Francis and I even played billiards.  Mostly everyone were just drinking though and the dancing at the discoteque hadn’t picked-up yet so I just decided to head home around 12 for some shut-eye.

We left Mui Ne at around 9am already.  We missed our bus because we waited at the Hahn Cafe rather than at the resort which meant that when it stopped for us, we weren’t there.  We thought that the bus would stop at the cafe first since that’s where we booked the tickets.  So the guy had to call another bus to pick us up.  After all the serenity at Mui Ne, it was quite a jolt to be surrounded by all those crazy motos again.  At least, we were surrounded by Russians at our hotel by the beach.  Kite surfing is such as big thing at Mui Ne and there was so much eye candy around thanks to the Russian hunks.

We are back in Saigon now and it’s still the same.  No Christmas stuff and all that.

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Sand sand everywhere

Sand dunes at the Fairy Stream

We signed-up for a jeep tour to the sand dunes, the fairy stream, the fishing village, and the red canyon with Hahn Travels.  The name sounded familiar and it had a nice desk in one of the nicer hotels lining the road. We thought it was a safe choice.  We paid $15 each but were told that if 2 other people joined us, then we would be refunded $5 each.  We also bought our Open Tour tickets from them for the ride back to Saigon.

The only fairy at the Fairy Stream was me

At about 2 pm, we headed to our first stop, the Fairy Stream.  There were two others with us — Swedish teens who were traveling for 3 months before going back home to start university.  The head trail to the stream was a mere 20 minutes along the main road.  The air was pungent with nuoc mam , the Vietnamese fish sauce.  We took a path that led us past some fish sauce vats exposed to the sun.  I’ve always loved fish sauce but the air was just too pungent with the smell.  We reached the start of the stream where a woman told us to take off our footwear and leave them with her.  Sensing that she wasn’t gonna watch them for free, we opted to carry them with us.

The stream was mildy interesting.  We waded through the ankle length muddy water and sometimes, to move faster, we took to the banks.  Some sand formations and dunes made the scenery interesting.  It kinda reminded me of the trails at Pinatubo which is infinitely more picturesque.  We turned back at about half an hour later as the scenery didn’t seem to hold much promise of changing.  The kid who was tagging along with us insisted to Francis that he gets paid.  I told him to just give him D1,000 to shut him up. But the kid was asking for D10,000.  “Why!” He kept yelling at Francis as we made our way back to the jeep. He even threatened Francis. “You know bullet? You want bullet?” which scared him a bit.  I was kidding Francis that the kid probably figured that he was a faggot and could easily be scared.  Well, it was a fairy stream after all and there didn’t seem to be any fairies around except the 2 of us.

Sand formations along the stream

Our elderly driver was gone and in his place was a much younger guy who seemed to speak better English.  We stopped along the main road to view the boats docked at the shore.  I thought we were really going to the fishing village, but what we got was a viewpoint.  I saw some steps going down to the boats though but the others didn’t seem to be interested.  There were hundreds of boats docked and there were even round ones.  I wonder how they’re able to navigate them?  On the way home, I did see one guy rowing a round boat and he seemed to be having one helluva difficult time.

Fishing village down below

So this is where that fishy smell comes from. Vats of phuoc nam under the sun.

The drive to the yellow sand dunes brought us past some very dramatic scenery.  Leaving the fishing village, the highway hugged the coast where waves lashed against the shore. The coastline was beautiful and a few islands could be seen from the road.  Several minutes later, sea gave way to barren land filled with shrubs.  A cemetery with colored tombs added to the desolation of the landscape.  Those of us whose image of Vietnam is that or lush rice fields and paddies were in for a big surprise as laid out before us was what seemed like the Mojave desert.  Indeed, it reminded me of the stretch of scenery from Nevada to California.  An interesting thing I noticed was apart from what seemed to be a cemetery, I also saw single tombs spread around the area.  There  also didn’t seem to be much houses in the area.  a few minutes later, the Yellow Sand Dunes loomed before us and on its base was a pretty lake with lotus flowers. We rented

Toombstones along the road to the yellow sand dunes

plastic mats for sand sledding from the kids for D20,000 each.  I wanted to return mine and just share with Francis.  But the kid apparently knew what “share” meant as he shouted , “No sharing!”  I can’t believe I heeded him.  We walked through a pine forest then emerged to the gleaming sands.  There was no there but us though I saw a couple of jeeps parked at the embankment near the lake.  The last time I saw sand dunes was the one at Ilocos Norte.  I was still a kid then and the wind was blowing so hard and sand was flying everywhere, I could hardly make it out.  The Yellow Dunes were absolutely breathtaking!  The dunes were postcard perfect.  We were lucky that no one had arrive there so we had the place to ourselves for gorgeous photographs.  It felt just like being in the Sahara minus the camels and the cactus.  We hiked up a bit to get to some dunes that were steep enough for sledding.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really work.  I managed to push myself off and slide down a bit.  The two Swedes were sorely disappointed.  On our way back to the jeep, we passed by a crowd heading to the dunes.

Back on the road, we stopped at the Red Canyon.  It wasn’t really a canyon but looked more like an eroded embankment of red clay cut by water passing through. We were told by the guy at Hahn Cafe that due to government activity, people couldn’t walk through the canyon but only take pictures.  But we managed to go down and the driver didn’t stop us anyway.  It wasn’t really much and the walls were carved with graffiti from all the tourists who have been there. A little rain, if it does rain in Mui Ne, would easily erase all the graffiti.

We arrived at the Red Sand Dunes, which was by the road back at about 4:30.  We have signed up for  a sunset tour but with the sun still so high up and the time still so early, unless we were willing to wait for an hour and a half, it didn’t seem we were gonna get any sunset at the dunes.  There were more people here taking pictures and more kids peddling the slides.  The dunes were also spread out enormously but not as picturesque as the Yellow Dunes.  Perhaps it would be really lovely at sunset.  Not wanting to wait so much, we decided to just head back home.

We managed to get our $10 back, though the guy at the counter didn’t seem to be too happy about it and refunded us with dong.  The two Swedes who paid $12 and were expecting a better tour with an English-language guide weren’t as lucky.  We left them grumbling at the guy who sold us the open tour tickets.  “It’s not worth it.  At Saigon, we paid $6 that had a bus, lunch… ”  We saw them again along the street and they told us they couldn’t get any refund as they didn’t buy an open bus ticket which we did.  I told them that the bus ticket had nothing to do with the tour rate as when we were arranging the cost of the tour, we hadn’t even bought the ticket and yet and our agreement was with the number of people joining us at the jeep.  “I am so angry,” said the older one.  “Well, we live and learn,” I told them.

Lesson for the day: don’t believe what tour companies always tell you and scout around first for the real price.  A better deal is to actually hire a moto for the day and just go on your own.

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Mui Ne

Mui Ne beach

We arrived at almost  2pm from Saigon. The Open Tour bus with booked through TNK Travel deposited us at Hong Di Resort which we booked via email.$16 bought us a basic cottage with a double bed, ensuite bathroom, and a fan.  The bonus was it being beach front.  The ocean was literally just meters away from us and that meant being lulled to sleep with the waves crashing on the shore.  $3 more would have brought us airconditioning but that would put us a little farther away.  We were fine with where we were.

The entire beach is several kilometers long and motos and even cabs hang out at the main road lined with shops, resorts, cafes, and restaurants.  Francis and I stumbled on a shop that had really cheap clothes.  Either they were really first class quality knock-offs are overruns.  We couldn’t tell and we didn’t mind.  For $49 dollars, I got an Abercrombi & Fitch khaki cargo shorts, Gap loose cargo shorts, Billabong surf shorts, and 2 North Face shirts.  Not bad.  I even bought more stuff here than in Saigon.  There were so many nice clothes to buy but I had to stop myself from spending too much on shopping.  At least, we were still way below our budget.

Late late lunch, around 3 pm was at Lamtong which the shopkeeper pointed out to us as having really good food and very popular.  He was right.  The servings were big and very cheap.  A plateful of sSeafood springrolls was D30,000 and fried noodles with vegetables D20,000.

Walking along the windswept beach, it was clear we had made the right decision to detour here.  The 4-hr bus ride was so worth it.  The coastline was long, clean, and though the waters were not suitable for swimming due to the large waves, it was nevertheless very beautiful.  We booked a tour to the Sand Dunes, the Red Canyon, and the Fishing Village for $15 per person.

It’s almost 6:30pm and there is a strong breeze.  The resort is quiet as it doesn’t have a noisy bar.  In fact, the entire beach strip, even the main road seems to be quite.  It definitely isn’t a partying beach which adds more to its charm.

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A Temple and a Tunnel

The major attractions of any city, town, or village, always seem to be places of worship.  After all the time spent building beautiful architectural wonders to please the gods, this is no surprise.  One of the delights of Southeast Asia has always been the numerous temples.  I’ve had my fill of temples in Bangkok and Ayuthayya having gone there there twice, the most recent just being 2 weeks ago; but I’ve never really been tired of them.

Unlike Bangkok where there seems to be a shrine or temple, Buddhist or Hindu, in every street corner,  Saigon’s seems to be lacking in them.  Thien, a Vietnamese I met, explained to me that the temples are not in District 1 which is the center, but rather in its outlying areas like District 5.  One really interesting temple we went to was the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh.  We booked a full day tour that included the Cu chi Tunnels.  It was only $7 per person.

The bus picked us up at the TNK office along Buin Vien along with others we picked up at guesthouses around the Pham Ngu Lao area.  Our guide was a 60ish man who referred to himself as Slim Jim.  He spoke English quite well having taught the language at secondary school in a Mekong town.  He cracked a few jokes and generally gave very helpful information.

Two other Pinoys were in the same trip.  The two middle-aged women, one who was a doctor, were travelling by themselves.  It was really traffic going t0 Tay Ninh and there wasn’t much to see.  After a rest-room stop somewhere out of nowhere, we finally arrived at the temple at 11:30.  It was hot and there were hardly any shade.  We had half an hour to go around before heading to the balconies to watch the worship service for another half hour.

Caodism is a really interesting religion that combines Confucianism, Buddhism, and Catholicisim.  It counts among its saints, Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, and a Vietnamese poet and revolutionary.

The elaborateness and color of the temples however didn’t quite match the service which seemed to be quite drab. We viewed the first 30 minutes of the service from a balcony overlooking the worship area.  There really wasn’t much going on except for some chanting.  Apparently, people were segregated by gender and by what seemed to be certain positions.  Obviously, the elderly people nearest the front, bedecked in elaborate costumes seemed to be the most titled.  The ceremony only really seemed interesting because of the colorful attire and the chanting.  Musicians played traditional Vietnamese instruments at a loft on the same level as the balcony.

Back at the bus, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant where I had some ban xeo with boiled pork. Mostly everyone stuck to the safest option—  an omellette with fried rice. I was really hungry as it was almost 1 pm.

The final stop was at the Cu Chi Tunnels.  The elaborate tunnel system built by the Vietcong only proved that it takes more than guns to win a war.  They really put one over the Americans who were often left puzzled why the Vietcong managed to move around and surprise them in spite of the constant bomb attacks.  Of the two tunnel complexes, we went to the one at Ben Dinh.  Inside the bamboo forest were exhibits showing boob traps and some re-constructed tunnel rooms such as a kitchen.  Of course, the highlight were the tunnels themselves.  It was definitely not for the claustrophobe.  The tunnels had actually been enlarged a bit to accommodate tourists.  I managed to get about 3 feet inside but turned back when the guy before me also turned around.  There were too many people and the tunnel was really low.  I didn’t want to get stuck with someone’s ass on my face while waiting for the line to move.

Me and my Vietcong

The tour ended with some refreshments of tea and camote and then a film showing about the tunnels.  We were back at Siagon at almost 7 due to the heavy traffic.

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