I'd explored the north of Vietnam and travelled half way down the coast. I was completely blissed out on the country. Now it was time to continue down the coastline all the way to the Mekong Delta in the south.
Nha Trang: A Russian-owned holiday resort
My journey from Qui Nhon to Nha Trang was by way of a minibus that was at about triple capacity by the time I boarded it. To give you some idea of the scope of this overcrowding, for most of the journey I had an elderly Vietnamese lady sat on my knee. She was not talkative. At one point we stopped for lunch on the side of the road in a cafe that had a number of chickens - soon to be someone's lunch - roaming around, and an elderly man hosing himself down on the side of the road.
Nha Trang is a stop that a lot of backpackers make, but it isn't one that most rave about. Much of the city has been bought by Russian people, meaning that it doesn't feel very Vietnamese at all. The beach boasts plenty of luxury bars, restaurants and sun loungers, and my first thought was that, with the beach bars and palm tree-lined roads, I could be anywhere in the Spanish Costas. If you want a beach break in Vietnam, it's not a bad option, but it's not the sort of place you want to go if you're trying to learn more about your host country. So after just one night there in a bland sort of hotel - dinner was beer and a burger in a chain restaurant - I decided to catch a coach inland to somewhere that would: Da Lat.
Da Lat: Scenery, greenery and a very difficult trek
For anyone travelling through Vietnam, Da Lat provides a refreshing change - not least in terms of the weather. Along the coast the heat is balmy and overwhelming, the skies are grey and the pollution is close and often suffocating. The climate in Da Lat - situated in the central highlands - is drizzly and very pleasantly cool. The scenery is green and lush, and dotted with waterfalls, making it a popular spot for hiking and canyoning.
I was staying in a homestay-cum-hostel which is an accommodation very typical of Da Lat. Its hostels are typically family homes, allowing travellers to ingratiate themselves with Vietnamese culture and - after a long trip - to feel like part of a family for a little while, thanks to sometimes overwhelming hospitality, which includes home cooked breakfasts and dinners served around one big dining table. However, if you don't fancy garlic noodles or chicken first thing in the morning, I would advise you to steer clear of some of these meals!
Thanks to Da Lat's incredible rural surrounds most accommodation offers a host of activities, ranging from walking and bike tours to extreme sports like canyoning. To canyon or not to canyon is a big discussion among travellers visiting this area. The sport - which involves abseiling, sliding and jumping down waterfalls - is by no means safe and has a history of serious accidents. Thrill seekers flock to Da Lat to try their hand at this slippery sport, but if canyoning is on your itinerary then it's worth doing a lot of research to find out which companies have the formal permits to take tourists out, and which meet health and safety regulations. These are always going to be the more expensive options, but it's worth paying more if it's going to help keep you safe.
After a girl staying at my hostel returned from a canyoning trip with a dislocated shoulder, I decided to pass up canyoning and instead opted for a pretty rigorous hike on and around the mountains of Lang Biang, during which we would reach three summits. As guides won't take just one hiker - the money is too little for a day's work - solo travellers have to buddy up with others who want to do the same trek. It didn't help that the other guy on my hike was a tall, sporty Canadian who had been the president of his university's hiking club. By the end of the day I was very glad the weather was cooler than on Vietnam's coast, as I simply would not have been able to handle that hike in the heat.
I can honestly say that the one day hike broke my body more than the Inca Trail had back in Peru, due to its relentless uphill ascents followed by extremely steep descents, and trying to keep up with the other guy on my trek! We also had to climb thousands of roughly-hewn steps, many of which were higher than my waist and so involved a lot of climbing and sliding around in the mud. However, the scenery made it so very worth it: we walked past horses in pine forests before entering jungle terrain with bright orange earth, and when we reached the top there was a stunning view of flower farms and coffee plantations stretching out over the hills and dipping into the valleys.
I needed a day to recover after my hike, and then I decided to get going back to the coast.
On this day of downtime I visited "The Crazy House" (or Hang Nga guesthouse), which is a strange Disney-like artistic installation/hotel. It was probably one of the most bizarre things I've seen on my adventure, and I imagine that staying in one of its rooms would be quite the trip! It was first opened back in 1990 and is still being constructed to this day.
Mui Ne would be my next stop, and I chose to travel there by riding pillion on a motorbike for a two-day trip, having seriously enjoyed my first biking stint. As I was nearing the end of my time in Vietnam and finally feeling like I had a better understanding of the people and their culture, I wanted to maximise my time there, and make stops along the way, rather than sailing past all the points of interest on a bus or a train.
The road to Mui Ne: A local lesson in Vietnamese culture
My guide arrived on his motorbike at 7am, so after a forced breakfast of garlic noodles from my hostel, I strapped my rucksack to the back of the vehicle and we were off, speeding along the (often terrifying) motorways.
The first stop was a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Da Lat - and the location of my first ever Weasel Coffee! Walking past endless fields of coffee plants towards the cafe, I saw a large cage of weasels which at the time seemed slightly random. The coffee house served all kinds of coffee, but one - Weasel Coffee - was much more expensive than the rest.
It turns out the coffee beans that had gone into this particular warm beverage had been fed to weasels, collected when they came out of the other end, and cleaned before being brewed. After learning this new - and somewhat disturbing - info, I decided to brave a cup anyway and there is no denying that it was delicious! Coffee is a huge deal in Vietnam: the nation's version of the hot drink is extremely strong and consequently most locals limit themselves to just one cup to kick their day off. And what a kick it is!
We had a couple of other stops that day: a silk factory where I bought a beautiful silk kimono and scarf, some hidden waterfalls, a temple with a Big Buddha, a local rice wine brewery and an incense-making Buddhist monastery.
Visiting the temple that day was the only place in Vietnam where I felt my safety was jeopardised, as my driver left me to wander alone and it was empty. Largely in Vietnam, the locals want you to be safe and will give you all sorts of help to ensure you don't come to any harm. However, outside the temple I had a close shave with a man who tried to attack me, and when I told my driver he laughed and shrugged it off. Initially I felt angry at his dismissal, as the experience had shaken me quite a lot, but I quickly put it down to a "different culture" rather than taking it personally, which is something you have to do a lot when travelling, particularly in Vietnam! My advice to anyone travelling through the country would just be to ensure you're surrounded by people as much as possible.
That night I dined with my driver, some of his friends and a few other travellers over noodles, veggies and a lot of delicious Tiger beer. At one point, one of the guys brought out a bottle of "happy juice", which tastes quite a lot like whiskey.
"Why is it called 'happy juice'?"
"When man drinks it, woman is very happy. When woman drinks it, all man run away!"
There was my answer!
This night I probably learnt more about Vietnamese etiquette and culture than I had during the whole of the rest of my time in the country. What made it interesting is that there was a mix of older and younger people around the table. The older people tend to be a lot more traditional, while those in their twenties and younger seem much less religious - with many I met describing themselves as "nothing" when I asked about their beliefs - and less superstitious: one told me:
"...old people here believe some very strange things."
There also seems to be more gender equality among the younger generation, with younger women less into getting married, and more about having jobs than they were in the past. I heard a number of stories from women in their 20s about their parents' bafflement and disappointment in them working with tourists and "catching un-traditional ideas" rather than looking for potential husbands. Indeed, one of the drivers that night asked me why I wasn't at home "looking after my family". While a question like this at home would set me off on some sort of gender equal rant, there's just no point in Vietnam, as their way of thinking is just so far removed from the type of beliefs we're used to in the UK, and there was no malice in the question.
I was also told that tourists often dress "not very polite", which confused me on the grounds that I didn't think manners - as I know them anyway - were a big deal in Vietnam after weeks of having people I didn't know tell me I was old - at 27 - to be unmarried or that my freckles were ugly! Translated, however, it seems that the word "polite" is used to mean conservative.
Age is also a really big deal in Vietnam, and is one of the first things people will ask you about upon meeting. This is because it's important for them to know who they need to respect the most, and who they can treat as more inferior when talking, and also when cheers-ing!
When drinking around a table in Vietnam, people will clink their glasses any time anyone says anything they agree strongly with! And depending on the amount of alcohol that has been consumed, they may just clink their glasses after anyone says anything! Following proper "cheers etiquette," if you are younger your glass should be lower than the others, while the oldest person should ensure theirs is at the top.
Your birth year is important for another reason too: to determine the sort of person you are. A man born in the year of the Tiger, for example, is very desirable because of his strength, but a woman with the same birth year will find it difficult to marry because strong women are considered wayward and undesirable. I was born in 1988 - the year of the Dragon. This was a highly desirable year to have children in Asia, but as a result when the global financial crisis hit at the time we were all graduating, this baby boom actually saw much more competition in the graduate jobs market, turning it into an unlucky day to be born!
Furthermore, most people in Vietnam follow a lunar calendar rather than the solar-based Gregorian calendar, although this has been their official calendar since the 1950s. One interesting side effect of this is that the length of months vary wildly; for example sometimes one year will have two Septembers. I was lucky enough to be in Vietnam on a number of "lucky days" - as decided by mystics - at which point you cannot turn a corner without running into a wedding.
The next day we were back on our bikes and on the road to Mui Ne bright and early, and with sore heads from all the happy juice. We were speeding along quite nicely when my guide very suddenly pulled over on the side of the road and hopped off the bike. There was a man across the road with a bloody axe and a large bag that was moving of its own volition. It turned out that he had just half-killed and bagged up a king cobra that was edging its way to where his kids were playing.
My guide said this was only the second time in his life he'd ever seen a king cobra, so I guess it was pretty special. The family gave us some durians for the road. Durians, in my opinion, are the most disgusting foodstuff on the planet and they smell so horrendous that many hotels and busses in Asia have "no durians" signs! But we thanked them and continued on our way.
On the way to Mui Ne we stopped at a spectacular dragon fruit farm and a tea plantation, and upon arrival my guide took me up to the town's famous sand dunes before driving me along the blustery front to my hotel.
Mui Ne: Padding the Fairy River and getting scammed
Mui Ne is sometimes considered an alternative to Nha Trang for people who want somewhere a bit quieter, or a bit more "off the beaten track". However, I didn't really like it.
The strong wind on the front made lying on the beach or swimming in the sea absolutely impossible, with sand blowing everywhere and the waves reaching insane peaks before crashing hard on the beach. It features a number of bars and restaurants, and there are plenty of hotels along the front, but most are western and seem to have quite a run down vibe. This is another Vietnamese town that has been heavily bought out by Russian people, and while my hotel seemed very deserted, the few people I met there were all Russian.
Since I'd treated myself to quite a luxury hotel in Mui Ne, I decided to go to the bar one night and treat myself to a glass of wine. My first obstacle that there were no staff or other people in the bar, and my second was that, after I'd managed to attract a staff member and ordered a glass of wine, she brought me a shot of wine. I eventually had to ask for five "glasses" of wine all poured into a big glass, and unfortunately this set me back quite a lot of money!
The only other thing I did in Mui Ne was to visit its Fairy Waterfalls: another pretty attraction that would leave me angry for a few hours afterwards.
The Fairy Waterfall is a very shallow river that you walk along to reach a (rather underwhelming) waterfall. The scenery on the way is all red rock, and walking in the river is very relaxing on a hot day. It had the potential to be a great time to while away a couple of hours. But then, of course, I got scammed.
There are lots of different entrances to the stream, a lot of which go through people's gardens or cafes, and they'll all charge you different amounts of money to go to the waterfall, although I have a strong suspicion that visiting it is actually free.
I paid about 2,000 dong (about five pence) to get into the stream and then a teenage boy from the house I'd used as an entrance started following me and talking to me. I was a little bit annoyed because he was walking very fast and kept telling me to keep up, when I just wanted a stroll, but I tried to be polite. On the way back from our speedy walk to the waterfall, he waited until we were alone and then demanded I pay him around £10 - a huge amount of money in Vietnam and more than my luxury hotel was costing per night. I obviously refused, at which point he started ranting about how he goes to school and then his grandma jumped out from the trees and also started telling me to give him money.
I made it clear that I would not be giving him £10, as I'd never agreed to have him as a guide, and all he did was walk me there and back, and no-one else had a guide, and he was getting increasingly angry. When we got back, I was looking through my money to find something to give him, and he snatched 300,000 Dong (about £9) off me and ran off back to the waterfall. It wasn't the money that upset me, it was more just the fact that I'd been taken advantage of.
The next morning I was very happy to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, where I would be staying in a hostel. I'd not been in a big, bustling city since Hanoi and I was looking forward to the busyness and impersonality of it.
Don't miss Saigon! Finally making it to Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a brightly lit city that mixes old and new and is surprisingly easy to navigate. As you'd imagine, as a former capital city it is full of hostels, hotels and bars and restaurants. There are plenty of places to eat and drink that lend you a spectacular view of its busy skyline. However, I'd never seen so many motorbikes in my life and, much like Hanoi, crossing the road was quite a challenge. I did feel though, that the city didn't have quite as much character as Hanoi.
One of the must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City is the incredibly moving War Remnants Museum. I caught a motorbike there, which was an experience in itself, and one I wouldn't really recommend in Saigon! If you talk to a traveller who has been to Ho Chi Minh, they'll likely have visited this museum, and if they have, they'll certainly remember it. Like the other war museums in Vietnam, you do not feel like it is entirely unbiased, but wandering round its exhibits and photos is very much an emotional experience, and it taught me a lot I didn't know about The American War.
The next day I decided to take a day trip to the famous Cu Chi tunnels: an immense network of tunnels that were the Viet Cong's base during the war. Soldiers used the tunnels as living quarters, hiding places, communications networks, supply chains, hospitals and weapons storage areas.
The Cu Chi tunnels were a lot smaller than the ones I'd seen further north in the DMZ near Hue, and you literally had to crawl on your hands and knees to get through them. As the tunnels were very busy when my group visited, you couldn't move backwards or forwards, and it was extremely claustrophic. The majority of the group were quite panicky and got out at the first possible exit.
We also saw a number of the different traps the Viet Cong used to kill and maim American soldiers as part of their resistance efforts. These were typically traps that the enemy would fall into that looked like giant bear traps, or ones where they would fall onto a series of giant metal spikes and impale themselves. There was also a shooting range that tourists could have a go in. For me, however, it felt very wrong to celebrate guns in a place where so much death and horror took place not so long ago.
The beautiful Mekong Delta
I'd been unsure as to whether I'd make it all the way to the Mekong Delta, but I had a couple of days to spare before my flight out of Ho Chi Minh, so I thought I'd make the most of it and take the three-day tour further south.
The Mekong Delta turned out to be one of the most beautiful parts of my time in Vietnam. We visited the biggest floating market in South-East Asia - and this one definitely wasn't for the tourists! It sold dragon fruit, melons, peaches and other fruits in bulk to people who would then take their wares back to their own market stalls.
A tip for buying anything in Vietnam is that you should not look into people's eyes when carrying out the transaction. While we might see it as a sign of mutual appreciation of a deal well done, in Vietnam it indicates that you think the other party is going to try con you out of your money and you're searching their face for any hint of a lie!
We also visited a small island where the people were barbecuing rats, frogs and snakes and a beautiful Buddhist temple set in stunning gardens. Also on the itinerary was a place where natural caramel is made, and a bumble bee farm where we drank honey and jasmine and listened to a local band play traditional music.
However, easily my favourite part of the Mekong Delta trip was an absolutely stunning boat trip amid reeds, intricate trees and giant lotus leaves that boasted scenery like I'd never seen before. It felt like we were sailing in an ethereal, waterlogged forest and was a very idyllic way to finish off my time in the country.
Seven weeks in Vietnam!
It had been a long seven weeks in Vietnam, and all the was left to do now was to get myself back to Ho Chi Minh Airport (SGN) and on a flight to Hong Kong.
The night before we left the Mekong Delta I went out for my last (hopefully ever) meal of veggies, noodles and tofu and I got chatting to an English guy, who was the only other person in the restaurant. He had just arrived in the country and would be spending the next six weeks making his way up to Hanoi. Over a few Tiger Beers, I passed on my hard-earned advice, told him about my favourite places and where to avoid, and I found myself feeling nostalgic and really quite jealous that he was getting to experience it all for the first time.
In Vietnam I had some of the best experiences of my life, and also some of the worst. The scenery is incredible and the culture and traditions are fascinating, but I often felt very taken advantage of, and also very judged for my looks, clothes and life choices. There is definitely no room for thin skin in the country.
Ultimately though, it was the country on my travels that had the most impact on me, and that I know I'll be thinking and talking about for years to come.