After a short break I am back on the blog and into the travelling…feels great to be moving again. I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam earlier this week and have decided to join up with a tour group to explore Vietnam. I have never been on a tour before mainly due to the fact that I don’t like being told what to do (most importantly when to wake up!) and also because I wanted to prove to myself that I am smart, savvy and independent enough to travel the world by myself.
However, travelling solo is actually quite exhausting – planning activities to do during the day and the best way to see them and how to get there; organising and booking transport to the airport or hotel; keeping track of expenses and budgeting (its a full time job!) and eating by myself can get boring and very lonely too. Don’t get me wrong I have loved every moment of my trip so far, I’ve met some fantastic fellow travellers and I think I’ve done pretty well to have not got lost or ripped off but I’m very much enjoying being guided and having someone do the hard work for me!
The tour that I am is a little different to your normal run of the mill tours – once the group arrives in a destination its basically “free time” and its up to ourselves to decide what we want to do – the Chief Experience Officer (CEO) or tour guide does help to work out the finer details and if the whole group wants to do the same activity they book the lot. All accommodation and transport is organised and usually the group goes out for dinner together. You can see the tour I’m doing here: G Adventures
So back to what I have been up to…
For me the Cu Chi Tunnels were the highlight of Ho Chi Minh City. The Tunnels are about a hour and a half drive from the city and were built by the Viet Cong soldiers (Northern Vietnamese Communist) during the Vietnam War. Personally I find the history of the Vietnam War extremely interesting (especially with Australia’s controversial involvement – Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh and Bush Tucker Man ‘Les Hiddins’ anyone?) but being in Vietnam makes it even more so. More about the Cu Chi Tunnels are comments in the photos. What I have noticed in Vietnam is the amount of people that are physically deformed – its widely known that the US Forces used many toxic chemicals during the war and this is blamed for around 50,000 children who were born deformed by parents who were affected by the chemicals.
My first overnight sleeper train ride occurred last night from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang – it took about 8-9 hours, was around 700 kilometres and I was super excited! We boarded the train about 7.15pm and left the station at 8.00pm. I shared a sleeper with Lisa, from the UK and Natalie and Stefan; an Austrian couple. It was actually a really enjoyable trip – obviously it was dark so I couldn’t see anything but I slept quite well and was rocked to sleep by the “clanking” side ways of the cart. Being woken up at 4.30am was not pleasant and knowing that we could not check in to the hotel straight away also sucked.
Whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready, I enjoyed a super strong Vietnamese coffee, followed by a walk to the beach to watch sun rise and the locals doing their exercises. This ranged from Tai Chi, swimming in the ocean, walking, jogging and various stretching and twisting movements.
As my room was still not ready after breakfast I decided I was already awake, sweaty and dirty…I may as well just head out for the day. I took a beautiful, long walk along the beach which is very stunning – compared to other Asian beaches it is clean and the water is clear. I was then approached by a old cyclo driver who offered to take me to the main sights for 200,000 Dong ($10) – why not! I hadn’t been on a cyclo as yet and what better way to see the town by bike and really getting amongst the traffic.
Our first stop was to the Catholic Cathedral built in the early 1900’s that sits on a small hill. What makes this interesting is the fact that not many Vietnamese are Catholics and the architecture is different to that of surroundings buildings.
Next we cycled (or my friend did the hard work!) to Long Son Pagoda or where the Big Buddha is perched. The Buddha is about 21 metres in height and can be seen from in town. I must have dropped the ball slightly here because I never get done over by touts but I had two young ladies who were extremely persistent and I just couldn’t get out of their game!! They latched on to me and told a story about them living in the monastery as they were orphans (yep, haven’t heard that one before) and they could show me around (NOTHING is free in Asia!). Somehow I ended up with a frangipani flower behind my ear and incense sticks in my hand (first rule…never accept anything!) and being told about the leaning Buddha statue. It just happened so quickly!!!! Then came the money talk…you just need to make a donation to the orphanage…buy these postcards….they are only 300,000 Dong – about $15!! No way I said, you just followed me, I’m not buying anything!! Then the nastiness started…but we gave you incense, we are orphans, you are a bad person, we wish you bad luck…and they were extremely spiteful and bitter. I did feel bad for the incense and seriously I could have and should have walked away whilst being verbally abused but I did the dumb Western tourist thing and pulled 50,00 Dong out of my wallet, it was quickly snatched by one of them who then walked away quicker then I could say ‘Buddha’. The second lady demanded more money – but no way was I giving in – you share that money I told her – no, no, she already took – too bad – no more money!!! She cursed at me in Vietnamese and I made a break for it. I’m blaming the 4.30am start for the slip in concentration.
But in all honesty I don’t believe in giving money to beggars or touts. I’ve discussed in length with other travellers, tour guides and locals what you should do but I believe it just encourages a never ending cycle. Every single day in Cambodia I was approached by young children – usually around six years old trying to sell postcards and braclets. It is extremely confronting when a young, dirty boy in tatted clothes stands in front of your table at a restaurant with sad puppy eyes and palms open while your tucking into a big fat meal. I have watched other tourists wave the children away only for the children to persist…the tourist gives in a shoves money into their hand or people genuinely believe they are doing a good deed and smile to themselves once the child skips away to the next table.
The touts and beggars are also getting smarter. The latest scam is a young mother holding a baby, you wave the mother away, but she yells ‘no money, no money, I need milk for my baby’. Conveniently there is a shop close by selling milk for a baby for usually around $15US…expensive for a reason…once the tourist has left the milk is returned to the shop keeper and the profits split! In most cases these scams are run by someone behind the scene who forces the young women to go on the street or the parents of a child who would rather the child work then them. My opinion anyway…
The Buddha was really cool, extremely large and jolly looking. The views from the Buddha were beautiful and Nha Trang actually reminds me of Nice in southern France.
I then visited Cham Towers, a crumbling building built between the 7th and 12th century. It is used by the Buddhists to worship and give offerings too. While I was there, locals were organising a large feast.
My last stop was to the local markets. I only spent about 30 minutes…you can never look at anything without “Madam, madam, you like, you buy”. I couldn’t even look at a bunch of bananas without being harassed!
Tomorrow I spend another day in Nha Trang before departing on the overnight train to Hoi An and then Hue. Lisa and I are planning on spending the morning soaking in mud at the Thap Ba Hot Springs. Apparently they have healing powers – I’m hoping they might ease the nasty sunburn I endured this morning! I am black on my arms and my face looks like a lobster! Nice combo!
Enjoy the long weekend – I’ll be thinking of the Aussies who fought in Vietnam.
You can check out the pictures here 🙂