As I carefully hung my Dong out to dry on the wrought iron shutters of our hotel room window in the dark – there’d been another neighbourhood-wide blackout – I remarked to Phil it might be time for us to leave South Vietnam behind. We’d been taken in by motorbike scams, had our shoes aggressively mended, wasted days trying to get my Macbook fixed, struggled to find chay (veggie) food, crawled at heart-pumping speed through the deathly Cu Chi Tunnels, and – most recently – got caught up in a raging typhoon trying to buy Diet Coke.
While we’d perversely enjoyed our time in Ho Chi Minh City, I was eager for a bit of rest. And where better than Life’s a Beach, a British-owned beachside hostel in a tiny fishing village outside Quy Nhon I’d visited four years ago?
We booked train tickets and one of the staff at our hotel ordered us a Grab (the Southeast Asian version of Uber) on his phone and offered to meet us at 4am to ensure we got in the taxi safely. But nothing is ever easy in Vietnam, and after a 3am wake-up, there was no Grab and the staff-member was nowhere to be found. We desperately trekked around a deathly quiet Saigon, with our combined 60kg of luggage, until we gleefully happened upon a taxi rank. Bizarrely, the first driver we found had ‘never heard’ of Saigon station, despite it being the largest and most important train station in the whole of Vietnam. Just as bizarrely, when we eventually tracked down a driver who did know where it was, they hailed us a passing unmarked 4×4, which Phil was CONVINCED was going to kidnap us. Upon arriving at the train station we were blocked from entering by a number of loitering men who told us we were in the wrong place and that no trains go from the station, as well as a young woman demanding to know whether we were a couple. We ignored them and found the train waiting on the platform. Choo fucking choo.
After an inevitable two-hour delay, we arrived in Quy Nhon roughly 14 hours after our train had chugged out of the station in Ho Chi Minh. We took a transfer to Life’s a Beach and I found it to be largely the same as I had left it: the rooms stocked with super-comfy mattresses, the waves crashing onto the sand, and free Saigon beers waiting for us on the bar. It was great to be back.
We passed a couple of pleasant days working on the beach and playing pool in the bar; the rain here was intermittent and the sun strong. Since I’d last visited, a number of other hostels and restaurants had opened up in the fishing village and along the beach, but it was still pretty quiet tourist-wise. Crab baskets line the shore and basket boats bob gently in the clear, turquoise waters. Shops are fronted with plastic bowls of water, from which the antennae of various living sea creatures protrude. I try not to look at these.
Much like last time, I was gutted to have to leave this tranquil spot, but my mother (she asks me not to call her this as it makes her feel old so she will henceforth be referred to as ‘mum’ or ‘Gezza’) was winging her way to Hoi An to meet us. I reflected she may be just slightly ‘cheesed off’ (something she often says to express annoyance) if we weren’t there to meet her. So we hopped on a (blessedly uneventful) train to Da Nang, and took a taxi over to Hoi An.
I don’t think I’ve been asked as many questions in my life as we were in Hoi An.
The plan was that Phil and I would slum it in a budget hotel for one night before my mum arrived, after which I would abandon My Man (he makes me call him that) to stay in a luxury resort with Gezza. After she had departed, I would return to the budget hotel. The Vietnamese staff members at both hotels just could NOT wrap their heads around such a complex stratagem, and were freshly astounded and baffled every time Phil would turn up at the luxury hotel or vice versa. “Who is the tall man?”, “Where does he stay?” I was asked on many occasions by many, many members of staff, who would communicate our whereabouts to each other via walkie talkie. Later, sheltering from a shower, we got embroiled in a conversation with a barman who told us it was his ambition to be a butler, and would not be shaken in his belief that every single Brit has a butler at home.
That said, staying in a luxury resort (sorry Phil) was a very pleasant break from our routine of three-star hotels, dribbling showers, and rock-hard beds. There was a huge pool, an ocean-view balcony, and I was allowed to use my mum’s fancy cosmetics. HOWEVER (and this is a big however), when we were relaxing around the pool, if we wanted to order a drink or food, we had to wave a yellow “please wave for service” flag. Perhaps I could have dealt with this if I was, say, Prince Charles or Elon Musk, but – tbh – I’m not and it made me want to die. Sorry for the melodrama, but perhaps I’m just by nature suited to a lower standard of hotel.
Hoi An itself is incredible: brightly coloured lanterns are strung up over the streets and float down the river. The old town is all colonial architecture painted daffodil-yellow. The nights were spent eating really good Western food (no cardboard pizzas and noodle spaghetti here) at restaurants overlooking the bedazzling river. We were all thoroughly enchanted by it. The only downside was the tenacity of the people working on the boats, who were absolutely determined we would take a boat trip along the river. The irony is, we did actually WANT to take a boat trip, but after so long saying no to these people, saying yes felt like losing a battle. So we just didn’t.
One day we took a day trip to a nearby island so mum could see some ‘authentic Vietnam’, away from the wine bars and gourmet restaurants we’d been frequenting. We cycled around the island, visiting a rice wine factory complete with gargantuan pigs, a mother of pearl workshop, a boat yard, and even had a go on the iconic basket boats.
As their name suggests, these fishing boats – widely used in some parts of Vietnam – look like giant baskets. The tale goes that, when the French seized power, they sought to tax fishing boats, so the Vietnamese created boats that looked like giant baskets and – when the taxman would pay a visit – would claim they were simply used on land for lugging around giant piles of durian fruit or rice.
We were given a ride on one of these giddily unstable vessels by an elderly Vietnamese woman who introduced herself as “Sexy Lady”. She made a big scene out of humping Phil and tickling us with a leaf. Later on we saw her chatting to her friends and my mum remarked: “I bet she’s just a normal woman, who just puts the act on for tourists.” I think she hit the nail on the head given that, when I last did this tour, it was an exuberant “Sexy Man” who did the leaf-tickling-basket-boat routine.
At the boat yard, our guide explained why the boats have glaring eyes painted on the hull. Apparently this is due to the fact the men building the boats got so drunk on ‘happy water’ (an extra strong byproduct of rice wine) during construction they needed a surefire way to remember which end was the front. On the street by the boat yard, locals were burning fake money in curbside fires for good luck.
It was a wonderful and memorable day, and we finished it off watching the sunset over the gleaming rice fields, as a buffalo and her calf eyed us impassively.
Later that night as we were eating, a honking, revving motorbike parade started up around the river. Vietnam had won the semi-final of the AFF Championship, the Southeast Asian equivalent of the Euros. This would continue throughout our time in Vietnam – in fact one of the more raucous motorised parades occurred after a draw. Afterwards, we went to buy a bag for one of mum’s friends at work, and during the haggling process – entirely frustrated – the saleswoman went as far as to venture that we should pay more because “this colour blue is only available in this shop – nowhere else in the world”. I mention this only as it is possibly the most BDE haggling technique I have ever seen.
Another day we took a trip to the Marble Mountains in Da Nang. These jaw-dropping mountains are home to many spectacular temples carved out of caves, scores of ancient pagodas, and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – a viewpoint that can only be accessed by clambering over several fridge-freezer-sized boulders. We saw some incredible stone Buddhas deep within these gargantuan caves. However, when we made the difficult climb up to Heaven’s Gate, stumbling our way over chunks of marble and expecting to see stunning views over Da Nang, we were rewarded only with the less awe-inspiring sight of a Chinese man crouched behind a rock, taking a shit [not pictured]. “I will never forget Heaven’s Gate,” my mum remarked. I have no more to say on the sordid incident.
Despite The Shitting Man, Gezza really enjoyed her trip to Hoi An, remarking that it felt a lot safer than she’d been expecting. I think the perceived danger of Southeast Asia stops a lot of people visiting, and largely it’s a fallacy: there are few places over here where I feel more in danger than I do in Manchester or London – or Bradford, for that matter.
After my Mum flew back to the UK, the rain really hit. It was so bad the river burst its banks, my footage of the flooding made the BBC as well as a Japanese news channel, and when we took refuge in an Irish bar (where else?), the water got in and exploded some of their green, white, and orange lanterns. It was a sad metaphor for cultural fusion, and that day the house band stuck to weather-themed hits such as Travis’ ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’, Garbage’s ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ and Creedence Clearwater Revival smash hit ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’
The rain also stalled our trip to Hue: we wanted to travel over the Hai Van Pass by motorbike, but our guides – sensibly – advised us it wouldn’t be wise (or fun) while there was so much flooding. Our pilgrimage in the footsteps of those God-awful Top Gear Hosts was postponed. Sadly, this meant more days working in our favourite little Vietnamese joint – obvi the Irish bar.
Hai Van Pass
Once the rain had subsided a little, I Facebooked Danny – a guide I hired to do the motorbike journey over the Hai Van Pass last time – and he hooked us up with some guides.
They picked us up from our hotel, and we were off, driving along the coast to our first stop: the White Lady Buddha. The Buddha was surrounded by Bonsai trees and from that vantage point, the coast of sunny Da Nang was laid out in front of us.
There’s nothing like the feeling of being on the back of a motorbike in the sun, and this sensation was improved by my guide’s latest gadget: a helmet with speakers connected to his playlist. My guide was very chatty, while Phil’s was a lot older and more stoic. In fact, he didn’t say one word during our six-hour journey, but he did get them lost for a bit so there’s that.
As we continued on our journey, however, the rain made a reappearance. We stopped for a windswept lunch at an empty coastal restaurant, and biked over the mountainous Hai Van Pass, stopping for a wander at the iconic hill station that tops it. Here our diminutive guide insisted on picking up my 6 foot 2 boyfriend for a picture. He told us that he works as a guide during the high season and the rest of the time lives at home in Hoi An “off the bank of mum and dad”. We liked him. As was the case three years ago, however, the iconic view from the top of the Pass was blocked by mist, clouds, and rain. One day I’ll see it!
On the road to Hue, the rain really set in, coupled with freezing winds that rocked the bikes. We stopped at a fishing village for some respite, only to find it flooded, with brave residents continuing to ride their motorbikes through the flood. “This is treacherous,” my guide remarked, comfortingly, as we climbed back on the bikes. We were wearing waterproof ponchos over raincoats, but the rain still seeped in, meaning we were freezing and absolutely sodden by the time we arrived in Hue. It’s testament to the scenery, our guides, and the tour route that we still consider it one of the highlights of our trip.
There’s not much to say about Hue, despite it being the former capital of Vietnam. It rained a lot, we worked a lot; we trudged around the historic, drenched Imperial City and saw a number of royal tombs that can only be described as “piss wet through”. The real highlight was my new favourite bar – the Secret Lounge – which we stumbled upon and quickly adopted as our working spot for the week. (I’ve written about this incredible venue for our Indie Asia series here).
However, the festive season was fast-approaching, and we were just starting to become aware of how weird Christmas is in Vietnam. Skinny mechanical Santas clad in gold played the sax outside silk shops, a restaurant near our hotel blared endless Christmas hits and had fashioned a tree from pizza boxes, and outside backpacker stalwart ‘DMZ Bar’ stood a black Christmas tree covered in gilded AK47s, branded with the words ‘love’, ‘joy’, and ‘peace’. Inside the bar, Santa was riding a tank. We took an afternoon to buy Christmas presents for each other at a budget of £20 each, and – sad to leave Secret Lounge – set off to Phong Nha, to see the national park’s stunning caves.
Vietnam was turning out to be almost as difficult and strange as I’d found it three years ago, but – weirdly – it also contained a lot of our highlights. Having brought just one jumper each, we were hoping the weather would take a dramatic turn for the better, and soon. Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, we have fucking seen quite enough of the rain.