Hectic Hanoi

From Hoi An we had thought about taking the train up to Hanoi but decided the short flight would be much better.   The airport at Danang ( 40min from Hoi An) was super quiet. It also seemed that the airports we used in Vietnam were frequented by 80% foreigners, strange to see.

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We thought Ho Chi Minh was busy, well we hadn’t seen anything until we got to Hanoi.  Literally not 3 seconds can go by where you don’t hear a horn tooting.

Our first day this hustle and bustle was ok, it felt like a lively city with lots going on.   After that though the constant traffic and noise got a bit much, as did having to walk on the road in the path of traffic because the footpaths were full of parked bikes.
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We still went exploring each day to find some of the local cuisine.   This was our first and last glass of Bia Hoi, the local brew served from a keg thats only good for 1 day.   The first couple of sips were ok but it was a bit downhill after that.  Needless to say a Tiger beer was required to wash it down. 
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Banh Cuon was dinner the first night.  Pork or chicken mince in a rice noodle dumpling, very tasty.
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This woman was at the helm making it day and night.
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Bun cha is a favourite for lunch, pork patties and bacon in a broth to which you add rice noodles and whatever combination of herbs you want.

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And it wouldn’t be right to leave without having a Pho.   The chicken noodle soup was meant to rid us of our colds we picked up.
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We have nothing against dining on plastic stools at plastic tables but we were glad we didn’t have to get down this low to eat.
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We were staying in the central Old Quarter which with it’s narrow streets just seemed to exacerbate the traffic and noise. 
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It was a nice change to walk through the French Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake.   There are many French style buildings including the Opera House.
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The lake was a popular place for wedding photos, there were at least 6 couples that we saw.
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We had a quick look at the pagoda on the lake, a nice spot to stop and catch your breath. 
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Your never far from someone selling something in this city, either from street stalls, walking up to you or off the back of a bicycle.  Fruit, flowers, socks, nail clippers, you name it and they’ll have it.  A local even touted a shoe shine for a British guy sitting next to us once who replied with “What, you’re going to shine my Crocs for me?” Classic.
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Matt was (unsuccessfully) in the market for some new togs so we went on a mission to the newest, monstrosity of a mall in town. The Caesars Palace type statues and fountain are actually the ceiling of the mall which takes up 4 levels underground.
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What’s quite surprising is that there is an ice skating rink and massive waterpark in the middle of the mall.
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There are well over 150 food outlets too, not that any were very busy though, it’s definitely geared up to handle many more people than were there on this day.

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We decided to go to the movies to watch The Hobbit, our first ever 3D movie. It was in a small 36 seat theatre which was great considering we were 2 of 4 people in there. The seats were lazyboy recliner type, the only thing that could have made it better was a blanket to make us feel right at home.
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Coming up to the end of January and the TET festival/Chinese New Year meant the locals were busy buying red lanterns / pictures/ decorations (red for luck) , flowers, sticks of blossom, and also carting around clementine trees on their bikes which Rach found particularly amusing.
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Despite all this seeming activity, due to our colds we actually spent most of our time in Hanoi in our hotel room, a lot of Australian Open Tennis & movies were watched.

Our final night there we had dinner out with an old uni friend of Matt’s who has lived in Hanoi teaching English for 5 years, was a good catch up.

Unfortunately Hanoi proved a little too hectic for us, we were relieved to get a plane to Thailand where we will spend most of the remainder of our trip.

Hoi An

For our train to Hoi An we decided to get a sleeper carriage just to try it out, even though only a daytime trip. There’s 4 beds to a room so we were sharing with an American guy who kept Matt amused pretty much the whole 5 hours with stories of his travel through Asia.

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Locals don’t go far without their bikes, we saw these ones wrapped up ready for the train trip.

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It was a lot different being back in a (very) touristy town after our quiet time in Qui Nhon. Lots of restaurants to choose from, souvenir shops galore and around 400 tailors. Known as the city of lanterns it was pretty at night especially along the river front.

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We didn’t have great weather, it was overcast with rain on and off every day so unfortunately didn’t get to spend any time at the beach. We generally spent our time wandering around the different shops and watching some Australian Open tennis. Matt got a massage one day and when he came back I thought he must have had an Indian masseuse because he had a red splotch in between his eyebrows. But no, apparently the mark was the wind /evil coming out of him. Must have been a lot of wind because it’s still visible 5 days later.

The city has some beautiful old buildings but some of them could do with a paint job.

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Coming up to the festival TET it seems common to burn coloured pieces of paper on the street.

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This meant the streets got quite smoky.
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We had some great meals, both streetside and in restaurants.

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Happy hour specials were offered pretty much everywhere, some though were too good to be true. No one likes a cocktail where it tastes like they used the petrol dregs from their motorbike.

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None of these were drunk apart from the beer.

The old town has a curfew on motorbikes where they close off the central streets to pedestrians only from 2pm. We knew this happened but had 4pm in our minds so when we returned to our parking spot at 3.30pm one day we found an empty spot. After some frantic searching and asking around we found that it wasn’t stolen but shifted out of the central area. We found it and were expecting to have to pay to get it released but it wasn’t a problem at all, no money exchaged, we just drove it away.

Rach enjoyed Hoi An whereas Matt wasn’t too fussed and felt the whole town was like a giant tourist market. We didn’t get any tailoring done, the process just seemed a bit much for the savings that could be made.

The weather didn’t help the impression, which may have been different as apparently the beaches are lovely. Next stop and final in Vietnam the capital Hanoi.

Haven near Qui Nhon

From Nha Trang it was another train for us, continuing north to Qui Nhon.   Matt had found some great accommodation in a very small, very local fishing village, Bai Xep about 20min drive south of the city.   The guesthouse, called Haven (as is the pet dog) was fantastic, the best we’ve ever stayed in.  As well as having nice rooms and great owners (Australian) and staff, the food was incredible.  
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Breakfast was included with the room and they served an optional dinner at night.  Although there weren’t really any other dinner options close by, after the first night there’s no way we would have missed here.  

3 course something different every night whipped up by three very talented Vietnamese women.  It was great sitting down to eat with the other (3) guests and owners , a good way to break the ice and get to know each other. Was like a dinner party every night.   
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Each room had an honesty book that you wrote in for what you had grabbed out of the fridge to drink, or snacks to eat each day. They had great music, books and magazines to peruse – extremely relaxing.

The guesthouse was right on the beach which would have been great had it not have been for the slightly stormy seas.  Still nice to walk along.
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It’s really a place to relax and do as little or as much as you want to. 

One day we all (guests) missed the bus into Qui Nhon, but managed to flag down a local minivan for a smoke filled foot to the floor hair raising 15 minute ride in for lunch.  The beach there is incredible, the beautiful sand stretches for miles and it’s completely deserted.  Better not let the Russians know or in a few years it’ll be just like Nha Trang.
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One morning I went on a walk with Tom (guest from Finland) and Yin (one of the staff) to a waterfall near the village.
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It took a bit of clambering over rocks to get to it, and although there wasn’t a lot of water running there was still a deep pool that would have been temping for a swim had it been a bit warmer day. This is also the source of the village water supply.

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Bai Xep is a very small village that relies a lot on fishing.  One part of the beach is laden with fishing equipment.
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The guests at Haven were definitely the only tourists in the village, it’s not somewhere you would just stumble into.  A lot of the kids would say hello and ask us what our names are.

The standard Vietnamese inquisition is;

Hello!
What is your name?
How old are you?
Are you married?

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After 3 fantastic nights here unfortunately we had booked to move on to Hoi An, so back onto another train it was.

Vietnam by Motorbike Trip Day 5

From Buon Ma Thout we headed back out towards the coast.  Our first sightseeing stop was a rubber plantation. 
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The rubber trees are cut on one side so the sap leaks out.  This is collected and used to make rubber products.
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We also saw a cacao plantation. 
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The dark fruit are ripe.  When you break open the fruit you can see the beans which are covered in a flesh that tastes similar to mango.   I was hoping that there’d be a chocolate factory nearby but no such luck.
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Unfortunately not far into the day it started to rain so it was rain jackets / ponchos for everyone. Luckily it only rained for around an hour on our whole trip.
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The rain did little to dampen the views though.

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We had an amusing stop at a rail crossing.   Although you drive mostly on the right here, that rule goes out the window as you’re waiting for the train to pass.  You take whatever space you can find on either side of the road then as soon as the barriers are raised you’re off over the crossing, gradually merging back into the right lane.
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Once we hit the coast we headed south towards our destination of Nha Trang.   This final 30km or so was on the main highway 1 which proved to be the most sketchy part of the whole trip.  The buses and trucks go so fast and often pull off crazy passing manoeuvres.   There was a small lane for motorbikes but when a bus passes a truck in front of an oncoming truck it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  I think they feel like using the horn gives them a bubble of safety.

We made it to Nha Trang and got to catch up with Simon and Gieve again for one last night.
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We had a great night with dinner and drinks then a couple of games of very amusing beer pong.
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Matt and Simon also got a bike taxi ride for the novelty rather than walking about 300m. The photo’s not great because the old fella was peddling too quickly.
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All and all we really enjoyed the bike trip. We definitely saw alot of scenery that would have been a shame to miss had we travelled the coastal route. 5 days was maybe a little too long for us, but the motorbiking itself was fantastic.

It was great to end it with a reunion with the Slades. Was great to have them join us for travels in Vietnam, thanks Simon and Gieve for the great time and all the laughs.

Here’s our approximate route over the 5 days.
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Vietnam by Motorbike Trip Day 4

Day 4 started with a visit to the local village by the lake at Lien Son, Lak Lake.  This is another population that were displaced by the government.   After the Vietnam War they were moved from their homes in the forest to this village.   Their homes in the forest were raised up on stilts to help protect from animals (tigers etc) so when they rebuilt they kept the same style of house to keep with tradition. 
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Most of the houses are really long to fit the whole family in.  When a couple is married the man typically moves in with the wife’s family until they can afford to have their own house.
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Not unusual to see cattle, pigs, dogs, chickens and children roaming the village.
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It was pretty windy this day and we noticed it even more when we got out onto the plains where the rice paddies failed to offer much protection.
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Thang gave us the statistic that Vietnam is the second highest producer of rice in the world, Thailand is number one.  Actually that’s completely incorrect it’s about 7th and 8th but they grow a lot of rice regardless. The paddies we saw were normal rice, the sticky rice version is more likely to be grown in the terraced paddies on hillsides.

Had to get a pic of the 3 bikes in.
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We’d eaten a lot of local black pepper in Cambodia but hadn’t seen the plants up close until today. The plants look a bit like a bean plant and are grown up around trees.
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The green corns are dried to produce the black corns we eat.
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Looking at any menu in Vietnam it’s easy to see how important noodles are to the cuisine, breakfast, lunch and dinner.   We got to see rice noodles being made from rice powder and dried on bamboo sticks.   Different attachments can give thinner or thicker noodles.
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We had asked Thang to make this a bit shorter day because we hadn’t realised how tiring the days would be.   This meant we got into our final overnight stop, Buon Ma Thuot, around 2pm so we had a chance for a rest.

Our last dinner was very tasty.
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We couldn’t pass up some pool on the way home, Thang outdid both of us even Matt with his 3 finger glove.
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Day 4 down it was another reasonably early night in preparation for the almost 200km ride on the last day.

Vietnam by Motorbike Trip Day 3

On the road again nice and early heading further north we saw some of the flower fields that supply the many flower stalls at the Da Lat market.  Having fresh cut flowers is particularly important coming up to the end of January when the Vietnamese festival TET begins.

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In November 2013 typhoon Haiyan brought a lot of rainfall to this inland area, causing causing damage to many of the roads.   We discovered this when we struck some 15km of serious road works early in the day.
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Even the roading contractors seem to
wear sandals when they’re working.  Not sure this guy would have been able to hear his radio over all the machinery.
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Again we passed lots of coffee plantations and stopped at a cafe with a great view over the valley.

This cafe served many different types of coffee beans but was well known for its weasel coffee. Knowing how it’s made we weren’t game to try it, for those who don’t know here’s the explanation. The bean is fed to a weasel like this friendly one we met.

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The weasel excretes the bean, and the bean is then used to make a really expensive coffee.

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We saw where the weasels are housed, even their ‘honeymoon’ suite.

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This weasel facility was also producing rice wine. The rice is cooked, left to ferment then heated to produce steam. When the steam meets cold water and condenses the end result is rice wine varying between about 30-60% alcohol.

With so many silk products for sale in the markets it was great to stop by a silk farm to see how the threads are made. It all starts with the silkworm being fattened up on a diet of mulberry leaves.

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The worm then spins a silk fibre cocoon around itself, creating what looks like a cotton ball.

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When the time is right the cocoon is immersed in boiling water to separate the strands. The strands are picked up by the mechanical reel.
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The final product sort of looks like loops of pasta.
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Our stop at the Elephant waterfalls gave us a chance to stretch our legs.
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We clambered over rocks to get nearer the bottom and ended up having a bit of a mid morning shower in the spray.
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The landscape we were biking through was beautiful, it’s not like other countries we’ve been to where there are expanses of nothing. It seems that every inch has been put to use for coffee, fruit etc. The Vietnamese are very industrious people, always busy.
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Matt enjoyed the chance to stop to smell the tigerbalm.
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Thang decided to pretty up my helmet with flowers.
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Matt practised his tough ‘biker’ look while he wished he actually had Thangs bike for the whole trip.
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Stairway to great views? Well that’s what Thang told us. I think he just wanted to laugh at watching us climb all the way to the top because it was too overgrown to see much of a view.
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Our last pit stop of the day was to see a floating village.
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These people once lived on the great Mekong river but were redirected by the government to live on this lake instead.
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Instead of practicing our rotary-hoe tractor contraption (known as a highland taxi, often loaded with 25 workers) driving we thought we’d better leave it to the locals who seem to be experts at steering with their feet.
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As we were coming into Lien Son, our overnight stop, Thang got a puncture in his back tyre. Luckily even at 5pm we found a repair shop and after what looked like some glueing, patching and banging the tube was fixed and we got to our accommodation for a good dinner and early night.

Vietnam by Motorbike Trip Day 2

We didn’t actually hop on our bikes at all on Day 2.  We had added this day into the tour to give us a chance to look around Da Lat.  

We found a cafe in the morning that served a Latte and Flat White, always a good start to our day.   Quite a contrast sitting in the warm cafe looking out at the locals enjoying noodle soup for breakfast at the usual plastic table and chairs, yes many women do wear those hats.

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One of the popular tourist spots, especially for the Russian tour groups bused in for day trips from Nha Trang, is the Crazy House.  It’s quite difficult to explain, I guess it’s what you could imagine if Willy Wonka built a house.   There are no straight lines, the walls are made to look like tree trunks and you can end up walking over the rooftops.
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We didn’t spend too long here because all the uneven ground and walls started making us dizzy.
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Lunchtime brought the usual search of the street stalls.   We found these mini Bahn Mi’s which were delicious.
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The city is well maintained, very tidy, and still has many remnants of French Colonial Architecture.  We think it’s the most western / European Vietnamese city we’ve seen. There are even wide footpaths and clean air from the 1500m elevation.  
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There is a large lake which is nice to wander around, we saw the beginnings of blossom buds but in a few weeks the trees on the lake edge will look beautiful.

Da Lat is well known for it’s big flower garden that is beautiful to wander around.  
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There are heaps of bonsai trees, we really like the structure of them.

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They do some pretty cool designs with flowers like this portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
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Has anyone seen Matt’s glass slipper?
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At dinner we sampled both the red and white local Da Lat wine.   Not tasty enough to pay lots for but at the equivalent of around NZ$2 per glass we had to try it once.   Although we were under the impression that it was local wine, we later learnt that the majority is brought in by the barrel from France, perhaps their rejects?

Neat city , favourite place in Vietnam so far & wished we’d had more time there. But back on the bike it is.

Vietnam by Motorbike Trip Day 1

From Ho Chi Minh City we caught a train up to Mui Ne, a coastal city.   We were quite glad we were staying just the one night, it’s completely overrun by Russian tourists (note the signs in pic below) and we found it very lacking in personality.  Although it did have some interesting things on the menu. 
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We knew that people carried all sorts on their bike but a washing machine? Why is it that we have moving trucks at home? NB. The white plastic straps were over his shoulders like a backpack.
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Our time here was the start of our 5 day motorbike trip north via the central highlands.   Our guide Thang met us the night before setting off to go over our itinerary then bright and early the next day we set off with our own bikes, Thang leading on his carrying our gear.  

Day 1 involved quite a few stops along the way,  the first at a fishing village just north of Mui Ne. 
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It makes you realise just how important fishing is to the livelihoods of so many Vietnamese families.   While the men are out fishing the women are on the shore looking after children and shucking shells.

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Sometimes it’s the simple round boats that do the job on the water.   It must take a bit of practice to manoeuvre them in any way other than round in circles.
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We also spotted some repairs going on.
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We continued north passing some of the big sand dunes that line the coast. Not as impressive as those in Northland NZ but pretty cool all the same.
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Our morning tea stop was a paddock on the side of the road where a watermelon crop was.   Although they were growing just in sand the melons got enough water through irrigation to make them super juicy.
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We then headed inland and saw the scenery change to become more hilly and green.  We stopped where there were peanuts and taro drying in the sun.  The taro is sliced before drying and is either for the consumption of humans and animals.   The peanuts were yummy but we’re so used to having them salted.  They also grow at ground level in sand.
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Our lunch stop was at a small cafe, great tasting pork and veges on rice.   The most memorable part though was when Matt was called handsome then offered 7 buffalo to marry one of the local girls, apparently the going rate.  He wasn’t prepared to move in with the extended Vietnamese family though so he stuck with the offer of the NZ girl. 

We’ve seen so many dragonfruit in all of the markets we’ve been to and at our next stop we saw a big plantation.  The plant looks like a long skinny cactus, 4 are planted on each side of a post and they climb up to form what looks like a single plant.   Usually there are 2-3 crops of fruit a year but the wealthy farmers string lighting up so it’s lit 24 hours a day.  By doing this they can get 7 crops a year.  
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Our guide Thang manages to do bike tours through most of the high season and supplements this by growing cashew nuts through the low season.  He spotted a couple of trees on our travels and wanted to show us. 
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I would never have thought that they look like this before they’re harvested.

Banana anyone.
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The scenery we were travelling through was really pretty.  The only problem was the strong winds that blew us around a little.
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It was quite surprising to hear that behind Brazil, Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee.   There were many plantations on our travels.  Driving by it looks like an orchard but when you stop to look you see the bright red berries that contain the coffee bean.   We tried Vietnamese coffee twice on this first day but didn’t like it. Normally served with condensed milk which makes it really sweet and it ends up thick and tasting more like a hot chocolate to us.
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Our last sightseeing stop was a mushroom farm growing ‘ear’  mushrooms.  Rubber tree scraps are bagged up and then splits in the bags are where the mushrooms form.  
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There were plenty of fully grown ones being dried outside too. 
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It turned out to be a pretty big day of driving.  After about 200km we approached Da Lat where we were having a couple of nights.   It was getting dark, Matt’s petrol gauge was way past empty and we ended up driving through the city of 500,000 people to get to our accommodation. 

On Rach’s 2nd day of solo motorbiking (the other being the 5 hours off road in Cambodia) we had to negotiate some of the busiest intersections and roundabouts we’ve been through.

A little unnerving (no briefing, coaching, instructions, directions or tips – just on your bike and follow me) but we came through unscathed and went out for a well deserved goat hot pot dinner.  
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Ho Chi Minh

As soon as we touched down in Ho Chi Minh it was definitely a change of pace from Phu Quoc. With a population of 7.4 million and almost everyone on a motorbike, crossing the road was a little tricky to start with.
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We visited the war history museum which gave a very descriptive insight into the horrors of the Vietnam War. There was the usual display of fighter planes and other machinery.
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A bit more gruesome was the area describing torture techniques, I won’t go into detail.
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It was incredible to learn that more than 2 million civilians were killed during this time and the effects of Agent Orange are still seen today through mutations in DNA causing various disabilities in today’s generation.

On a lighter note we also spent much time wandering around the city.

The Saigon Square market was a hit, especially with Simon who seemed to arrive home with more shopping bags each day. A lot of the goods are much better quality than in Thailand etc. Because there are so many clothing and footwear factories in Vietnam the overrun from genuine exporters is sold at the markets. Was a bit tricky for a girl to find sports shoes there though, half the time the store will only have a style in one size and the other half they look at my size 9 foot as I walk in the door and immediately say no.

We all managed to do a bit of exercise to work off the Christmas / New Year’s excess. Matt and Simon got tennis coaching from ‘Coach Kong’ a couple of days, Gieve was good at going for walks around the park and Rach got into some of the public exercise machines.

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One exciting thing for the locals is that the first McDonald’s in Vietnam is due to open in the city soon. Apparently this progress was due to the owner being the Presidents son in law.
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There are many motorbike taxi’s in the city and when the drivers have down time they like to relax on their bikes, there must be some pretty good balance involved.

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We were also impressed with some of the wiring around town and the maintenance man clambering over them.

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There are many different types of street tours that you can do around the city day or night. We choose an evening street food tour where you get taken around on the back of motorbikes. It was quite entertaining going through the major roundabouts to see how you really need to drive in Vietnam, i.e. never completely stop just slow down and do your best to dodge other bikes.
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We were taken to 5 different stalls, sometimes having 2 or 3 dishes at once. We tried the HCM take on the papaya salad, noodle soup, famous rice paper pancakes, various desserts, rice wine and more.

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The more entertaining dish was the baby duck embryo which only Gieve was game to try.
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Although it’s a popular snack most of our guides had tried it once or twice but don’t eat it regularly.

Our second to last night we went in search of a karaoke bar. It’s not hard to find one in the city but they all seemed to only have private rooms for hire. We were more after the open area listen to anyone sing feel so gave it a miss.

Because we had a kitchen, on the last night Matt decided he would cook dinner. We went off to the supermarket in search of everything we needed. After about an hour in there we thought maybe making risotto wasn’t the best idea. The major thing we had trouble finding / translating was arborio rice. Plenty of rice options but which one? We must have looked really lost because a customer came to help us and ended up calling her sister who was working in a restaurant to see what we should use. Really great to have help and the sticky rice we decided on worked out great, in fact we might use it at home. Dessert was some NZ Natural Mint Choc chip icecream we found, delish.

We said farewell to Simon and Gieve for now as we were headed to the central highlands and they were off to Nha Trang for the remainder of their trip.

HCMC was enjoyable although living there would be stretch, each time you go out on the streets it’s a bit of an assault on the senses, too much to handle sometimes!

We had heaps of fun in these 10 days in Phu Quoc and HCMC, next stop trying our hands at a motorbike trip.

Happy Phu Year

It was great to have friends Simon and Gieve join us in Vietnam over New Years for 10 days of hanging out and relaxing.  We met them and spent the first 5 in Phu Quoc, an island off the south coast that actually looks like it should belong to Cambodia because it’s much closer to that shore.  

We stayed on Long Beach in Duong Dong, about half way up the island on the western coast. 

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Almost straight away we hired motorbikes and began exploring the rest of the island.  First up was the northern tip.   Nice beaches along the way and some interesting sights on the road.  Pork (meatballs) for dinner?

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We got onto some pretty dusty roads, there is a – lot – of roading and hotel development going on due to increasing tourist numbers.   There are a few fish sauce factories on the island so we went past lots of fish drying in the sun. 
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New Years eve was another day out searching for the popular ‘star’ beach in the south.  On the way we stopped for refreshments and got talking to one of the locals.  This meant that he was trying to either give directions to the beach or telling us of a restaurant to go to, unfortunately we didn’t understand anything and just ended up in fits of giggles over his enthusiasm.

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The beach deserves it’s name as one of the best on the island, great sand, we had time for a quick sunbathe before lunch.
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New Year’s eve we had a seafood bbq on the beach before heading out to find the nightlife of Phu Quoc.
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‘Chez Carole’ was the perfect place to bring in the new year.   Matt got a bit embarrassed with Simon’s Pina Coladas.
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The Filipino band was great. 

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They seemed to like having Matt and Simon there, maybe it was Matt’s great dance moves.
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It was a great night.

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We had some non-vietnamese dinners, one of which was some pretty good Indian.  Matt choose about the hottest dish on the menu.

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I don’t want to say that entertaining was draining but there were a couple of times that an afternoon nap was required.  Matt choose to document one, it looks uncomfortable but this was one of the best sleeps I’d had in ages.

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Our last day on the island we drove out to one of the waterfalls, a great spot to relax on the rocks and have a swim.

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Phu Quoc was a great place to explore, we loved getting out and about on the bikes even through the skinny streets.
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It was also great value for a lot of things – the first day before Simon & Geive arrived we had lunch at a roadside stall that was busy. They only had one dish – fried chicken, zingy salad and sauce on rice. 2 plates of this, 2 beers and a sprite (shandys), 100,000 dong which is about $NZ6.

Next we headed off to Ho Chi Minh to experience the bustling city life.