Vietnam -  2012

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Vietnam at a Glance

16th - 28th April 2012

Day 1 - Monday 16th April - St Helens to Melbourne

We (Garry, Mary, Steve and Vicki) were the last to arrive at the Franklin's depot in St Helens, just before 10am, cases in the bus and we were off on a cook's tour of St Helens picking up more of our fellow travellers. Two more were picked up at Beaumaris and one at St Marys. The bus was comfortable and as we travelled along the Fingal Valley rainbows and showers were seen on the rim of Mt Foster but never made the road.
More pickups at Devon Hills and we were dropped at the Kings Meadows shopping centre for lunch while Kerry and Joanne picked up a few more passengers. After lunch we were all hanging around like a gaggle of geese waiting for the bus to return. When it did there were 39 of us, one more was flying into Melbourne tonight, so wherever we went it was an instant crowd, by Tasmanian standards.
After a short run to the airport and we all checked in it was only a short wait until we boarded our Virgin flight to Melbourne, Kerry and Tyler only just made it after dropping the bus at Perth. The trip to Melbourne was only 50 minutes, it seemed to take longer than that to collect our baggage and climb aboard one of three mini buses that were taking us to the Best Western Airport Hotel where our dinner, bed and breakfast was costing us $130 each. We were in our room and having a cup of tea by 5pm. We had a walk around the local area with Steve and Vicki (S&V) before dinner, not a place we would like to live, houses nearly touching each other. Just as we arrived back at our room the phone rang to tell us there was only 10 minutes of happy hour left so we wandered over and the stubbies were still $7 each. We mingled with our fellow travellers until it was time for tea. The main course was a choice of salmon or steak alternating, the steak was good and Mary enjoyed her salmon, all washed down with a bottle of Annie's Lane Cab Merlot, our last wine for a while. Some interesting discussions over dinner with Hugh, Tom and BB. Into bed at a reasonable time as it is going to be an early start tomorrow, the first of many!

Day 2 - Tuesday 17th April - Melbourne to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Awake at 5am, but that's what happens when you go to bed at 8.30pm. Had a nice breakfast and gave Steve his birthday card. We were on the bus and driving away at a bit after 8am, a fraction later than planned; it takes a while to round up 40 people, a bit like rounding up sheep. A short trip to the airport and everyone through to departure without a hitch, the plane left a bit later than the planned 10.35am and the seats are the same as cattle class everywhere, not much room. The lights were off and the windows closed for most of the trip, a few slept, or made out they did, I started and nearly finished a book and we were fed twice. The food was ok and the cabin staff kept the drinks up to us, plenty of free alcohol if you wanted it.
Just over 8 hours later and we were landing at Saigon airport, no trouble at customs and our cases were fine. There was a bit of a wait for our buses in our first taste of the Vietnamese heat and humidity, we caught the second one and our guide was Minh. We were split into two groups and the other guides name was Thai. Both the guides live in Hanoi, our final destination. There were motor bikes everywhere, the main form of transportation in Vietnam. We arrived at our hotel (The Golden Rose) at 5.45pm Vietnamese time, three hours behind Tasmanian time, and we had to be back in the lobby at 6.30 to catch the bus to dinner, our fourth feed for the day. We had a quick shower and washed some of our clothes and spread them about, we were here for four nights so they had time to dry.
Onto the bus with Thai, after crossing the road, which was a bit of a funny affair, we waited until a bus was coming and no room for motor bikes, and were herded across. I expect we will get used to the traffic eventually. A short bus trip, up lots of stairs and we were there. Two long tables and a set menu (expected) and we have to pay for our own drinks. I had two Saigon beer stubbies at $2.50 each (50,000 dong) and Mary had bottled water. I had some dongs as I changed some at Melbourne airport. Big mistake as it was cheaper to change currency at the hotel. The food was as good as we expected, rice pancakes, beef dish, prawn dish, pork dish, plenty of white rice and an interesting three coloured jelly like desert, I had to eat it all to see whether I liked it, the jury is still out. The restaurant also entertained us with a two person band, the man with a single stringed instrument and the woman with a 14 stringed instrument, at the end of the night they played happy birthday to Steve. We paid for our drinks and straggled back onto the buses. Tomorrow we are back on the gold bus with Minh for the rest of our stay in Saigon. Back at the hotel, up to the 7th floor, clean teeth (with bottled water, two supplied by hotel every day) and into bed around 9.30pm.

Day 3 - Wednesday 18th April - Saigon

Woken up about 3.30am by the people in the next room and dozed until 6.45am. The breakfast room was busy and a nice selection of food, I did not find the dumplings until I was full, will try them tomorrow. The tomato juice was a bit ordinary but the omelette, fish, chicken, noodles, sausage, dim sums and yummy Asian pineapple.
Downstairs a bit early for the bus so we walked around the block with Hugh. We had to keep an eye out for the motor bikes that rode on the footpath as well, saw a charcoal seller and took his photo (after asking). On the bus soon after our walk and a short ride to the Reunification Palace, lots of stairs, lots of history and very hot, the kiosk on the top floor was doing a roaring trade. From the top floor we went down to the war room where what the Vietnamese call the American War was directed from. Quite a few nice bonsai plants on the roof and in the grounds but I did not get a chance to get up close to the tanks that broke down the gates at the end of the war.
Our next stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral and French-style Central Post Office, both built by the French who were in Vietnam for 100 years until 1954. I forgot I had my hat on and received a gentle reminder in the Cathedral, both places very photogenic. The market was next, lots of people and very busy. Wandered around there for a while, I purchased a T shirt and Mary a handbag, but we are not very good hagglers. Our lunch was at a noodle place over the road from the market, up more stairs. It was too much for Alice and she ended up being carried downstairs on a chair and taken back to the hotel. Alice bounced back and was fine for the rest of the trip. Meanwhile another drama was going on. Sietske and Betty (BB), from the other bus, were lost for a while, but we did not find that out till later, but they found there way back to the hotel. Standard procedure was to give us a map and a business card from the hotel, so that if we could not find our own way back we only had to wave down a taxi, and there were plenty of those.
After lunch we bussed to the Thien Hau Pagoda in Cholon, The Chinatown of Saigon and spent most of the trip ooing and ahing at the loads on the motor bikes we saw on the way. A very interesting temple and quite a few images later we were on the way to the War Remnants Museum, a very depressing place and quite a few did not go inside, and those who did go inside missed out bits i.e. the torture and agent orange rooms, including me. This is where we found out about the missing girls; Jo was looking worried by they had turned up at the hotel as we were leaving the museum at 4.45pm. Back at the hotel we had a Poppy and Granny nap before going for a coffee with S&V. Have to be in the foyer at 7pm to catch a bus to catch a boat for dinner. We had a muffin and coffee, apart from me, I had a green tea of a type I had not tasted before (Genmaicha), but it was good. Watched the traffic go past the café and then walked around the rest of the block. Had a chat to a few of the others who were wandering the streets before wandering back to the hotel and having a nice shower. 
A short bus trip down to the wharf on the Saigon River and onto a wooden boat made to look like a junk with lights outlining where the edge of the sails should be. We were on the deck floor with another party on the top deck. Food was good and plenty of it, as we could not eat it all. Saigon beer again, but 500ml bottles this time. Dinner consisted of spring rolls, fish, soup, beef, chicken, rice and pancakes for desert. Two girls danced for us to the music of two musicians while we motored up the river and down again. Lots of lights from the city and the other restaurant boats, one outlined like a fish. 
On the way back to the bus we heard a lot of horn blowing and it turned out a bus with other tourists was impatient because he could not get past our bus, I got the drivers attention and gave him the finger for his trouble, this was the only aggression we saw in the traffic, everybody usually cool, calm and collected, lots of patience.

Day 4 - Thursday 19th April - Saigon to Mekong River

Thumper (alarm clock) set for 6am, up, pills, dressed and down for breakfast. Nice mixture again with fish, noodles, pork (a bit hot), pork ribs, roast pork, dim sums, tried a bun (bit dry, not tomorrow), apple and pineapple juice and the yummy fruit. Sat with Tom, Warren and Chris. After breakfast we purchased two bottles of water outside the hotel from a street stall for 16,000 dong or 8o cents. 
On the bus at 8am and heading out of town to the first new highway (toll road) in Vietnam, but first of all through the peak hour traffic, bikes everywhere. The traffic was a lot quieter when we hit the toll road as the motor bikes are not allowed on it and because of the cost a lot of the heavy traffic still uses the old road. The country side around here is very flat, paddy fields in various stages, grow three crops a year, and interspersed among the fields are the tombs of the ancestors. Closer to the Mekong there are banana plantations and more houses along the sides of the road. We crossed part of the Mekong (Nine Dragon River) on a new bridge and shortly after stopped and met our local guide, who turned out to be quite a card. 
She led us along narrow pathways that still had bikes and vehicles travelling on them to a small village where we tasted five types of fruit and listened to the local band. After the tasting we kept walking through the coconut and banana plantations which were interspersed with drainage ditches. These ditches were tidal (15kms from the sea and are fresh water) and fill up with silt when the floods come. Because the silt is so rich the farmers dig it out of the ditches and spread it around the trees.
Our next adventure was on a small boat (four in each, no life jackets) for a ride down one of the larger ditches that was lined with palm fronds to another village where they made coconut candy. We saw the women making it and of course we purchased some plus a T shirt for Joe (these dongs disappear at a great rate, millions one minute, none the next), had a cup of tea and were allowed to hold a bloody great python for those that wanted to. I had never played with a snake before so had a go, but he wrapped it around my neck which was a bit disconcerting, S&V had a go as well as Mary, but Mary did not like it at all.
After a short walk, which was just as well, the sweat was running down my back, we came to a jetty where we boarded a boat to take us for a short ride to an island restaurant for lunch. Plenty of food, but I did not like the whole fish, deep fried with the scales on, but the rest of the lunch was fine. After lunch we admired the fighting cock that was in his own special cage and then back on the boat. After a short boat ride we climbed on the bus for a short ride to our next stop, the Vinh Trang Pagoda. The Pagoda was very well done, nice garden and impressive inside.
It was then back to Saigon where we were taken to a factory making lacquer ware. After a short explanation we had a look around the factory and then into the obligatory shop where we parted with a few more dongs. The shop was full of fantastic goods but we only brought a set of coaster (red with a dragon fly made of egg shells) to go with our red placemats. We tested Mary's visa card here and it worked fine. Then on the bus and back to the hotel, showered, washed a few clothes and down to the lobby at 6.30pm to go for dinner.
The restaurant we went to was KoTo; it is a training restaurant set up to train street kids with the first one being set up in Hanoi by an Australian Vietnamese. Our group, the instant crowd, took up all the ground floor and the food was good, the best so far. The kids were keen and on the ball. The usual 5-6 courses washed down by Saigon beer and finished off with a desert of sorbet and fruit.
Half of the group walked back to the hotel with Minh, while the rest went on the bus. There were lots of people around, especially young adults and teenagers who gather at a roundabout that has a large water feature and plenty of seating, all taken up. Arrived back at the hotel around 9pm and time for bed, 7am start tomorrow and I will wear my new T shirt which I purchased from the restaurant for $8 (16,000 dong).

Day 5 - Friday 20th April - Saigon to Cui Tunnels

We were down to the restaurant early for breakfast, but someone forgot to tell the kitchen as they were not ready, so we waited around for a while but we all still made the bus on time. Heading north from Saigon this morning to the Cuchi area where the Cui tunnel complex is situated. Peak hour again so we shared the road with millions of others. Where there are two or three lanes on the road quite often one is left only for the motor bikes, and it was pretty well policed. The traffic police wore light brown uniforms and we saw a few people pulled over here and there. Before we reached the tunnels we stopped at a rubber plantation where Minh explained the process to us. 
The tunnel complex was a very busy place, tourist buses lined up everywhere. We were introduced to the area by a Cuchi veteran who lost his arm and the sight of one eye in 1969. He explained how they were dug and what the three different levels were for and how they worked, as well as the traps and how they shut the tunnels up to help protect against gas and water attack. We then walked around part of the complex, the first stop being one of the camouflaged trap doors, very small but I just fitted. There were different displays of the various man traps, none of them very nice, and the way they converted unexploded bombs into explosives they could use. Past a shooting range where you could shoot live rounds out of various weapons for a few dongs, there was a kiosk here and the ice-cream was nice as it was very hot again. Past a destroyed American tank and then we were allowed to go through 30 metres of tunnel with a guide. Not very much room and these had been enlarged to fit Europeans; most of our party did not go through. Past the obligatory sales areas and back onto the bus where Vicki realised she did not have her camera. Minh had a bit of a look where she thought she had left and then gave the details to the staff. A phone call came through later saying they had found it but it was a false alarm as the images on it were all Asian.
Another long drive further north to Tay Ninh to visit the Cao Dai Great Temple (or Holy See), a religion set up in the 1920's to combine quite a few religions, it has millions of followers in Vietnam. We had to be there and inside on the viewing levels by 12 o'clock as that was when the mass started and today it was a funeral as well. We had to leave our shoes on the road outside and my word it was hot on the feet until you reached the carpet that led you inside, people were dancing around. The church was very ornate and the followers all wore white, except for the people in the higher orders. We only stayed for a quarter of an hour and then back outside to dance around a bit more and rush into the shade.
Because the church is the only tourist attraction in this area there are only two restaurants and they only open for lunch, so we headed off in the bus to one of them. It was a good lunch, lots of course (naturally) and I was as full as a tick. Back on the bus for the long long drive back to Saigon, interesting at times because of the traffic. Arrived back at 4pm and went to Gloria Jeans for an iced coffee. After that we walked around the block and had a chat to Deane and Co at the place where we had a drink the day before.
On the bus at 6.30pm for a short ride through the evening traffic (mostly young people) to a restaurant with a French name. It was two storey so the young and fit had to climb the stairs. The restaurant was laid out with tables of four so we sat with Hugh and Kaye. First course (spring rolls) came out with an exquisite chicken carved out of a pineapple, next was fish with a fishing penguin carved out of a cucumber (and I left my camera in the hotel). Hugh had his own next course as our rice etc had garlic in it and he had a carving all of his own. A few more courses washed down with Saigon beer, only one tonight, and finished up with a nice desert. Our entertainment was an old fellow playing on a piano and piano accordion; he played old songs that we all tried to sing along to. After the drink money was collected it was the usual, back on the bus and to the hotel where we packed up as much as we could, early start tomorrow, we have to have our bags in the lobby by 6.30am.

Day 6 - Saturday 21st April - Saigon to Hoi An

Up at 5.45am, bags packed and down for a quick brekky, nice choice again, then up with a glass of water for final teeth clean. In the lobby about 6.40am to organised chaos. One couple charged for water because they swapped the bottles over in the fridge. Our tin of crisps was gone so I asked Thai to tell them we did not eat them. The luggage all sorted and half of us sitting on the bus, hurry up and wait. Finally on the road to the domestic airport for the flight to Da Nang. There was no trouble at the airport, everybody breezed through with Thai doing a lot of arm waving. I beeped going through security, forgot to take my wallet out, beeped again, this time watch off, must be sensitive as I have worn the watch up to now. Then it was doing the normal thing at airports, waiting. It was a short flight, less than an hour and we were only given water to drink (all we needed). There was a bit of a scrum at the other end heading for the buses but we finally climbed onto the Minh bus. A short drive to a factory where marble is carved, watched the workers for a while, had an ice-cream and then into the shop where we parted with a few more dongs on a couple of small stone bowls. 
After a very short bus ride we arrived at the commencement of the walk over one of the marble mountains, some took the lift up half way and then walked down. The walk was good, a fair bit of climbing and we all puffed a bit but well worth it for the temple caves, the views were a bit hazy but we saw our first view of the famous China Beach. We saw a pick pocket grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged away. Down as many steps as we walked up on the other side of the mountain, past another temple and ended up in a street of stalls selling stoneware where we purchased a small Laughing Buddha. We were chased by people trying to sell us stoneware all the way back to the bus. 
Our destination was Hoi An where our first stop was at a restaurant that served mostly Western style food, some of the group were craving it. Started with spring rolls and I ordered fish and chips, but they had run out so I had ribs, and that's what they were, all bone and no meat, finished off with ice-cream and a drink of green tea. Our next stop was a tailor where we were given a very brief talk on how silk is made and then a long sell on getting us to have clothes made. Hoi An is famous for its tailors and shoemakers and their ability to make garments or shoes overnight, we did not have anything made but plenty of the group did. If you did have something made it tied you up a bit as you had to go back for fittings. We left there and walked around the streets and through the market and past a lot more tailors. Minh organised a taxi to take us to the hotel, our bags had already been delivered and taken up to our room. After we checked in we went for a walk around the local area, not much traffic and a lot easier to cross the road. Mary brought a couple of shirts and I spent up big on a 1.5 litre bottle of water for 10,000 dong (50 cents). The hotel had a nice pool so we made use of it, stayed in until we began to get wrinkly. The water was hard on the eyes and it was raining very lightly, but very nice all the same. 
Collected in the lobby at 7pm, for a very short ride and a nice walk, in the light rain, to the restaurant down by the river. Money bags were the first course followed by chicken curry and a few other courses washed down by Saigon beer, Mary had a French Sav Blanc which she enjoyed. All the party walked back to the bus, after taking a few images of the lights, and from there the walkers followed Minh back to the hotel. This town is quite small and we are finding our way around already. The bed is a bit harder than Saigon but more like we expected. The air conditioning control was a bit temperamental so we went down to reception and had the batteries change, still temperamental, just had to turn the batteries around a bit. Set it for 22C and let it run most of the night. Sleep in tomorrow, 9am start.

Day 7 - Sunday 22nd April - Hoi An

And we did have a sleep in, did not get up until 7am. Up to the 5th floor for breakfast, weather overcast and misty. Good selection of food for breakfast, especially the fruit, the mango was delicious and Mary has taken to the Vietnamese coffee. The views from the 5th floor are excellent, the town and river to the north and paddy fields to the south. 
On the bus at 9am and drove across the river to where we had lunch yesterday. There was a fishing net hanging above the water and Minh asked us what sort of fish did we believe was caught in this net. The answer was stupid fish, as they had to jump out of the water to get into the net. The fact is the nets were lowered into the water of a night, a light was put on in the centre of the net to attract the fish and it is lifted periodically. From here we walked back across the bridge into the old quarter of Hoi An (World Heritage listed) and to the Japanese Bridge. This bridge was built by Japanese living here a couple of hundred years ago and had its own small temple. Across the bridge we visited an old house that belonged to a merchant that is still inhabited by the descendents. A very short talk was given, including the fact that floodwaters last year nearly reached the ceiling of the ground floor. Around 130 people sheltered on the first floor for three days during the flood. Apparently the area floods every year, but usually only a few inches and all the furniture is moved upstairs. There was interesting old crockery etc hanging on the walls in extremely dirty cabinets that would have been interesting to be told about but the hostess was more interested in the big sell. We did get some tea and Mary purchased a set of serviettes to go with the red coasters.
We then walked back across the Japanese bridge on our way to a temple, via a clothing shop, where Mary left the serviettes, so I had a quick walk back to get them and caught the others at the Quang Cong Chinese Temple. The temple was very interesting and photogenic and we had to pay here to use the toilets. From here it was back to the river and onto a boat, this was an extra and we had to pay 1000,000 dong ($5) each for those that wanted to go, three boatloads in the finish, the rest of the party hung around the restaurant where we were going to have lunch and tormented the local hawkers. It was worth it as among other things we saw a fisherman throwing his net; he did it quite a few times for our boats and then came around showing what he had caught already and collecting tips. After we turned around Steve steered the boat for a bit and Chris was given control of one of the others. The throttle control was a piece of string wrapped around a stick that was wound one way or the other for increasing or decreasing speed.
Once we landed it was only a short walk to the Banana Restaurant for lunch. We were upstairs, tomato soup, potato salad, pasta finished off with pancakes and ice-cream, washed down with a mango smoothy, yum. The restaurant was open at the front which allowed a nice breeze to blow through. Our last dongs went on paying for the mango drinks so we walked back to the hotel to pick up a couple of letters to post and along to the Post Office to post them and exchange some Aussie dollars for more dongs. After we were donged up we wandered the shopping areas, I purchased a pair of shorts and a polo shirt and Mary four T shirts for the small grandsons. When we were sick of walking we caught a cyclo each back to the hotel, it cost 100,000 dong each and they hit us for another 10,000 dong for a drink, we were expecting it as Warren and Chris had that experience the day before, but they were friendly con men. Had another swim and after showering wandered down to the bar for happy hour. Gin and tonics on special at 100,000 dong for two, they were that strong we went back for a tall glass for Mary and another can of tonic. S&V joined us after having their last fitting for clothes.
Time for dinner and a short bus drive down to the Tiger Lilly restaurant. It was a nice feed, soup, mixture of spring rolls, squid and rice, finished off with a crème caramel. There were three tables of us and a waitress to each table. Ours spoke some English and was very personable (nickname Monkey Mountain because her friends reckon she is skinny) so I gave her one of my postcards and she asked me to sign it, after that she asked everyone at our table to do the same, she was extremely happy. She also posed for a photo with David which I will send her if she emails me. Paid the drinks bill and some of us walked back to the hotel with Minh where we picked up our passports, off at 8.30am tomorrow.

Day 8 - Monday 23rd - Hoi An to Hue

Our first stop today was at China Beach to have a look at the round fishing boats. One had just come in and the catch was three 20 litre buckets of big round spotty jelly fish, they said they get $10us a bucket. We watched the girl cleaning them and as well as the innards she cut off the spots, leaving just a clear mass of jelly.
Back on the bus and doing the rounds of Da Nang on our way to Hue over the Hai Van Pass. We stopped part of the way up for a photo but did not stop at the top. View was a bit ordinary because of the haze. The terrain was very steep and there were quite a few hairpin bends. There is now a tunnel through the hill for most of the heavy traffic, but of course no view in a tunnel. Our next stop was a resort to have a break and use their toilets, had a yummy New Zealand chocolate ice-cream. The resort specialised in seafood and all of it was in live tanks. A painted cray meal was 1 million dong ($50), prawns were more expensive, the fish less so and the shell fish the least expensive.
We reached Hue about 1pm where we stopped at the tropical Garden restaurant for lunch, the food was good but far too much of it, and the mango drink was pure mango. From the restaurant it was a short ride to the Perfume River for a boat ride up to the Thien Mu Pagoda. The boat was a family affair with dad driving and mum and baby selling clothes and souvenirs, Mary brought some black pants. The Pagoda was very good, it had a good feel about it and it was very photogenic. It was the home of the monk who burnt himself to death in Saigon in the mid 60's as a protest. 
The Imperial Citadel was next, a huge place but mostly destroyed in the Tet offensive during the American War. What was left of the buildings has been restored and the place must have been magnificent, it was modelled on the Chinese Forbidden City. The weather was still very hot but our next activity was a cyclo ride from the Citadel back to our hotel. Twenty of us lined up and it was 5pm and peak hour. Because I was dawdling taking photos I was last in the group, my general position, and therefore first to leave on the cyclo. It was good to sit down and because of the heat we had drunk all our water. The trip was exhilarating, cars, bikes etc going everywhere, all the horns tooting, gave one motor bike a shove because they were too slow, a different view than out of the window of a bus but we made it back to the hotel, the best one so far. Our bags were in our room and the bell boys came around for their tip. We just had time for a shower before it was time to catch the bus for dinner. There was a fellow trying to sell us photos of the cyclo ride but he picked a bad time and the quality was not all that good.
It was a short ride to where we had to load into three smaller buses; the lanes where our restaurant was were too narrow for the bus. I purchased more water as we were transferring as the bottles in the hotel were only small, hardly enough to clean our teeth with. The restaurant was only a couple of years old and well done. The beer was expensive but the meal was good, nice soup, tofu (never thought I would say that), pork, chicken, the obligatory rice and a green bean mousse with ice-cream. When we had finished eating one of the kitchen staff gave us a demonstration on cutting vegetables to make the carvings that came with some of our meals, she was very good, carved a fish and a prawn. Two buses later back at the hotel, 9am start tomorrow.

Day 9 - Tuesday 24th - Hui to Hanoi

Breakfast was good, different again, what I thought was battered fish turned out to be pineapple, the spring rolls were banana and the pancakes had meat and vegetables wrapped in them. There was plenty to choose from but the fruit juice at nearly every place we had been so far was a bit ordinary (mixed from powder) and very sweet. After breakfast we packed our cases (the only place we stayed only one night) and left them outside the door for the bell boys and went for a walk around the block to take in the atmosphere, people having their bowls of noodles and vegies (with some meat) for breakfast, past all the fruit sellers and motor bikes were parked on the footpath so we had to walk on the road a lot of the time, just keep walking at a steady pace and it is quite safe, the motor bikes just dodge around. 
On the bus at 9am and a pleasant drive (all the buses were air conditioned) out to the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang. Emperor Minh Mang reigned in the Nguyen Dynasty, the last of the Vietnamese dynasties, from 1820-1840. The construction of his tomb was completed after his death and is said to have taken approximately 10,000 workers to complete. It was a short walk from the parking area, where all the stalls were, to the entrance to the tomb complex. On the way small children were trying to sell us bananas, dollar, dollar, Cambodia all over again. One small fellow started to cry so Minh asked him what was wrong; 'no one wants to buy my bananas' he said, so Minh gave him a few dong. The tomb complex was a very peaceful place, even with the tourists, and extremely photogenic, with two lakes and no sellers allowed inside the walls. Walking back to the parking area I saw Geoff in the distance being chased by one of the children, but I was too far away for a photo. It was extremely hot and the sweat was running down my back, so it was a dash past the stall to the shade.
Our drive from here took us past tree plantations that were being grown for woodchips, nothing is wasted and the when the small logs have their bark removed that is sold for fuel for the cooking fires. We passed a woodchip plant at the foot of the Hai Van Pass. All the logs were small so that they could be handled without the use of heavy machinery. We have also passed numerous sawmills on our travels and some of the logs at these were a decent size. The trees in the plantation were held up with stakes so that they would grow straight. Also on the way back we saw pine trees that were cut much the same as rubber trees and the sap collected. The sap is used for furniture polish and also as a waterproofing agent for the conical hats for which this area is famous for.
After half an hour we were at another restaurant for lunch, still very hot and no air conditioning so Kerry organised fans to be near the tables. Food up to the usual standard but Mary stopped after three courses, we had soup, spring rolls, prawn rolls, chicken pieces, sweet pancake wrapped in leaves, beef, vegetables, rice, fruit and a sticky desert wrapped in leaves that took some extracting (very nice), washed down with mango juice. Back on the bus and we were at the airport in about half an hour for our flight to Hanoi. Breezed through the airport but realised before we reached security we had three cans of beer in our hand luggage, our bus had gone so I gave them to some taxi drivers, they were happy, and then we had to board a bus to take us all of 40 metres to board the plane. Where the bus stopped it would have been shorter to the front stairs if we had not boarded the bus. Only a 55 minute flight to Hanoi and I slept most of it, and at the end had a chat to a lawyer who noticed the KoTo T shirt I was wearing as he was involved with another program helping street kids. It was supposed to be 36C when we reached Hanoi, according to Minh it was 34C at the temple complex, so getting warmer. And it was warmer, a very hot walk to the bus and then an hour's drive into Hanoi to our hotel.
The hotel was very narrow (I paced out 6 metres later on) and very tall, there was only one lift, which created a bottleneck at times, and the air conditioning was on when we arrived, even the locals were complaining about the heat. The room was small but ok, no pool so we walked around a couple of blocks with S&V and had an ice-cream. Purchased a couple of containers of tea and checked out all the local shops selling meat, vegies, ducks with their heads on and then back to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel there were two girls at the door selling clothing and souvenirs and we had to get past them to get inside, it became a game in the finish.
I could not get the lights in the bathroom to work so went down to the lobby and one of the men came up, I had the card around the wrong way, I did feel a bit stupid! After a shower we met in the lobby at 6.45pm for a short bus ride through the hustle and bustle of motor bikes, cars, people having their evening meals at the street vendors (who pay the police to be there) to the Hanoi Tower, a big hotel, 25 storeys, three lifts and a group photo in the foyer before we went up to the 4th floor to the Jaspas restaurant. Australian food for a change and I had pumpkin soup, fish and chips and ice-cream and a Hanoi beer. I would have much preferred Vietnamese food, but I was only one of 40. Then back to the hotel and past the girls at the door to line up at the lift. The girls had Kerry's shirt off him trying to fit him with something, he said he wanted a polo shirt and they had it for him the next day. We finally reached our turn for the lift and up to bed, an easy day tomorrow with a 9am start.

Day 10 - Wednesday 25th - Hanoi

The restaurant was on the 13th floor and had nice views of Hanoi (very hazy) on two sides as well as a reasonable breakfast selection. Our first stop after breakfast was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and houses he had lived in, all in the one complex. It was a large area and very well organised, lines of visitors there already (it is a popular spot for the Vietnamese) and it was already very hot 36C, we had to line up, shorts had to cover knees, no naked shoulders, no water, cameras had to go with Minh. The guards were immaculate in their white uniforms and were everywhere. The mausoleum was cool and immaculately kept and Uncle Ho (as the Vietnamese call him) looked very tranquil. His wishes were to be cremated and his ashes spread in North, Central and South Vietnam, but the ruling party had other ideas. After the mausoleum it was back out into the heat to look at some of his houses and cars, he preferred the simple life and only used the Presidential building to receive important visitors. 
Olga went down on us for a while because of the heat but with lots of attention made it back to the bus. We made it the bus with the help of lots of water and an ice-cream. Because of the heat we went to the museum next (air conditioned) and it was very interesting, it was built by the French as a museum and a sample all the artefacts the French collected were in there, along with where they were found. From here to the Ha Hoi restaurant for lunch, nice food but I passed on the pumpkin soup and had two nice mugs of green tea. From here there was a walk through the old quarter of Hanoi (which is laid out as it was 300 years ago) with Minh for those who wanted to go. It was a very interesting walk, along shoe street, hardware street, toy street, wedding street and a few others until we arrived at the venue for the water puppets. A very busy and popular place and a bit of a scrum to get inside, even though everyone had numbered seats. I paid 20,000 dong to allow me to take photographs, but we were seated towards the back and the lighting was not good for photography. All the same the show was interesting and well done.
Back on the bus and to the hotel, ducked across the street to KFC for a soft serve (7,000 dong for two, 35c each) while the traffic jam at the lift was clearing. Meeting for dinner at 6.30pm. I asked Minh about national service and they have a ballot system like we had, Minh missed out, unless you were unemployed and then you went straight in. There is mosaic wall through Hanoi that was built for the 1,000 year celebration of the founding of Hanoi (1010-2010) that is 10 kilometres long, the longest in the world.
We laid around in the air conditioning at the hotel until it was time for dinner, which was at the Banana Flower restaurant. Our normal good meal, soup, kebabs, fish, chicken, vegies, rice, nice ice-cream, Hanoi beer and a green tea to finish up. Back to run the gauntlet of the girls, Kerry still trying shirts on and I purchased a map. Another line up for the lifts and we probably overloaded it. An early start tomorrow, on the bus at 7.15am.

Day 11 - Thursday 26th - Hanoi to Halong Bay

Up to breakfast a bit after 6am and there were that many people there we were waiting outside the door, the people that went up at 5.45am had a seat and then a bus load of Malaysians who had an early flight turned up and it was every man for himself. We eventually made it through the door and ate most of our breakfast standing up, then all of a sudden they were gone and there were seats to spare. Geoff said he cooked three lots of toast before he got any, as it was popping up it was grabbed, they were too quick for him. The orange juice we have been getting is Tang, a mix with water drink. 
In the foyer at 7.15 and onto the bus, the girls still trying to sell stuff. It took a while to get out of Hanoi and into the country side but there were not too many places along the road where there were not houses, and the fields were right up to the houses, no space lost anywhere. One town we passed through had a coal mine near it and it had coal dust everywhere, but the children in their white school uniforms looked clean and smart. Our first stop was a disabled workshop where we could see people working at embroidery and painting and of course a big shop full of goods, but they did have a kiosk and clean toilets. I believe they did quite well out of our group. A pearl shop was our last stop before getting on our boat, the talk here was interesting and a bit more in depth, one of the hints with pearls was how to spot a fake, hold a cigarette lighter underneath it and if it does not burn it is most likely real. They also had a big shop but as far as I know only sold our group a bracelet.
It was only 10 minutes from the boat, across a causeway onto an island and to the wharf or marina area and our rickety old junk. The first thing on the agenda when we started motoring was a seafood lunch, prawns, satay stick, clams, fish steaks, rice, vegetables and a cup of tea. When lunch was finished we were among the islands, all made out of limestone. Lots and lots of boats about, mostly tourist, but even with the extremely hazy conditions it looked spectacular. We motored among the islands for an hour or more, seeing the occasional floating fishing village in the distance, before pulling into a bay crowded with boats, we were at the cave. Our boat pushed its way in and we disembarked and walked up the 100 steps to the cave, some of the party stayed on the boat, they have had enough steps. The cave was huge with massive stalactites and stalagmites, but in my opinion spoiled with coloured lights everywhere, but I still took lots of images. A big building project was going on in the little bay to make the loading and unloading easier, it was a rat race as it was with lots of shoving. After the cave it was a quick trip back to the marina and onto the bus. We had to wait a bit as one of the ladies was locked in the toilet and could not get out.
After an hour or so we stopped at a ceramics factory (not allowed to take photos) and used their conveniences and looked around the works and surprise, surprise a large shopping area, but they did have ice-creams. Back on the bus and away again and by this time the sun was low in the sky and looking pretty good through the haze, so I chased it from side to side in the bus until it disappeared. Last stop was at the disabled shop as Vicki wanted to buy something she saw this morning, but it was gone.
An hour later we were back in Hanoi and heading to our last meal as group. The traffic was unbelievable, nobody seems to get upset, lots of tooting, mainly to let people know you are there and there might be something big behind you, or you are being passed. The small motor bikes take it in their stride and hug the sides of the road as the bigger vehicles make out the bikes are not there. Finally arrived at a restaurant called Mam and our last meal was a good one, again, vegetable soup, spring rolls, meat threaded onto a strip of sugar cane, beef stew, vegetables, rice and fruit. Because it was our last night we shared a bottle of French Merlot with S&V, it cost 460,000 dong ($23) and one description of it was 'paint stripper', not the best wine we have had. At the end of the evening Jo stood up and said a few words and gave Minh and Thai presents from all of us, photos all around. Then I said a very few words thanking Kerry and Joanne and the two guides. We left the restaurant, crossed two streets, we are getting better, and back on the bus (our second home) and in our room at 10pm, a late night. 

Day 12/13 - Friday 27th, - Saturday 28th- Hanoi to Melbourne and Melbourne to St Helens

A bit more relaxed this morning and plenty of seats at breakfast. After breakfast we caught a taxi downtown to the water puppet theatre area with S&V. It was next to Hoan Kiem Lake so we had a walk around that, I saw an ANZ teller machine and decided to get a few more dongs, a bit of a circus but I ended up with a million ($50), and we kept walking. After the circumnavigation we had a coffee and walked a few streets and kept running into our fellow travellers. I brought a pair of sandals and Mary a jar for putting pencils in. It was nearly time to get packed so we caught another taxi back to the hotel; it cost 44,000 dong ($2.20). Back at the hotel I was going to buy a T shirt but the girls were not there. I am getting the gist of crossing the roads; wait for the heavy vehicles to go and then walk, the motor bikes will go around you. 
Minh told us how the schooling worked, you pay for pre-school. Years 1-5 are free and you pay for the rest, also the class sizes are large and the richer people pay the teachers extra to look after their children, Australia looks pretty good! 
After we packed our bags and left them outside the door we went over to KFC for lunch, warren and Chris had the same idea, we had fish strips, rice and cucumber and iced tea. Walked the 40 metres back to the hotel, the girls were there so I purchased the T shirt I was after, Vietnam Telecom. We then hung around the foyer while Minh and Thai sorted out the luggage and had it put on the busses, and then the hours drive to the airport. It was organised chaos where the buses were supposed to pull in; ours had to stop in the middle of the road to unload the bags and people.
There were lines of people at check in so it took a while but we finally made it. Minh was waiting for us before we went through security for last goodbyes; he received plenty of hugs, a good guide with a sense of humour, he said he would see us in Tassie one day. Brought a mango ice-cream at our boarding area but it tasted quite strange, more oniony than mango, it repeated for ages. The flight to Saigon only lasted an hour and a half and we were given a filled roll and a packet of peanuts, as well as something to drink. But there was something new for us, the aircraft TV showed us taking off and land from a camera that must have been in the nose, very interesting and a topic of discussion. A short bus trip after we were stickered and herded through the domestic terminal to the international terminal. Passed through immigration, hard to get a smile out of them, and it was into duty free. I brought a book and Mary perfume and a couple of cooking books. We had a coffee with S&V to finish off our dongs but I did not have enough, topped it up with Aussie money, so we were all confused for a while.
We boarded the plane on time for a 9pm take off. It was a pretty good flight for an overnighter; food was reasonable, choice of Asian or Western and we were well looked after, watched a movie, read a book, dozed on and off for 4-5 hours (eyes were closed anyway) and watched the sun come over the horizon when we were flying over South Australia. Melbourne was reached about 8.30am (watches forward 3 hours), purchased a few things in duty free and breezed through customs. At least our customs people are friendly. Like Brown's cows we made our way to the Jetstar area but it was too early to check in so we had a coffee. After check in we had the long walk to the departure lounge, more waiting. At least the plane was on time and we were in Launceston airport in about 50 minutes. It was very windy with white caps on Bass Strait and we had a long approach run and the plane wobbled about a bit. A hold up with the baggage for some reason but we eventually made the bus. One drama when the bottom of a duty free bag broke and all this nice booze spread across the terminal floor. 
We were in Franklin's new bus, very swish, lots of steps up to very comfortable seats. Drove around the Launceston area dropping people off, stopped at Epping Forest to get something to eat, dropped passengers off at St Marys and Beaumaris, another tour around St Helens dropping people at their homes and finally to the depot. A bit of shopping for tea and home around 6pm, a long couple of days.


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