Saturday, 16 June 2018

THE POWER AND THE GLORY- Vietnam's poster art

All over South and Central Vietnam are posters in the street- some huge billboards and others small and subtle, but all bright and highly stylized representations of varying aspects of Vietnam society. Sal, in particular became instantly enamoured with them, and began a photographic collection. Whether they are meant for propaganda purposes, or simply motivating and uplifting, we thought them worthy of their own short blog post! So, here they are.....

Aren't they gorgeous?

Monday, 28 May 2018

THE BEATEN TRACK- Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam

Our first Vietnamese train trip from Quang Ngai to Hue was a particularly scenic one, with the sweeping shimmering coast on one side and the jungle hills on the other, but because of the afternoon sun streaming in the windows, many people chose to close their blinds, and we didn't see much of it. We were slightly taken aback when troupes of tourists boarded the train at Danang. Thus far, most of our time in Vietnam had been spent in places off the tourist radar, which meant visiting places a little short on sights, perhaps, but big on hospitality and experiencing a taste of genuine Vietnam life. By moving to the big name places on the coast with famous sights and beaches close by, we were entering the ultimate tourist zone, with all the challenges that come with that.

Boarding the train in Quang Ngai

Our route around southern and central Vietnam

Hue had an ancient feel, with falling down French colonial cottages, atmospheric pagodas with decorative mosaics, and paint peeled, neglected buildings in wonderful shades of blue, pink and yellow. It was surprising to learn the Nguyen dynasty who ruled Vietnam from this city, lived here as recently as 1945! The city's sights were very spread out and we didn't want to brave the usual crazy traffic on a motorbike (we had seen way too many accidents while in Vietnam), so we chose a different area every day and explored what we could by walking. We absolutely loved the history of the place, after visiting many more modern places in Vietnam. It was everywhere we looked and we soaked it up wandering the shady streets along side the many canals, lovely mouldering walls and prettily decaying bridges.

Street barber, Hue, Vietnam

Pagoda detail, Hue, Vietnam

Lonely frangipani on temple step, Hue, Vietnam

Common and neglected buildings on street, Hue, Vietnam

Old woman crossing the train lines, Hue, Vietnam

Part of the giant citadel wall, Hue, Vietnam

Ornate doorway, Hue, Vietnam

Loving the history! Hue, Vietnam

Bonsai and pink wall, Hue, Vietnam

Back of shop, Hue, Vietnam

Love those walls! Hue, Vietnam

Patterned window, Hue, Vietnam

Wall in the town, Hue, Vietnam

Shades of pink, Hue, Vietnam

Very photogenic tailor's shop, Hue, Vietnam

Battered old wall, Hue, Vietnam

Pagoda and foliage, Hue, Vietnam

Although there were bus loads of tourists at the main sight- the Imperial City, Hue was spread out enough to absorb the visitors, and most of the time the chatty locals and reasonable prices we paid for everything made us forget we were in such a popular sight seeing destination. The climate seemed to have changed slightly with the move to a new area, and the humidity was so high that we were literally dripping with sweat all over our bodies all day everyday, especially when we had been walking in the heat. We were happy to have a room with a great balcony on which to dry out our clothes, which we had to wash every day.

Street cobbler, Hue, Vietnam

With friendly monk (they're not scared of women here!), Hue, Vietnam

Train making it's way through the town, Hue, Vietnam

Fishing with a motorbike helmet, Citadel wall, Hue, Vietnam

Interesting man on street, Hue, Vietnam

Market lady, Hue, Vietnam

Detail on pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

Buddhist symbol on pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

We didn't enter, as we had forgotten our elegant clothes, Hue, Vietnam

Snails and chilli, Hue, Vietnam

View from tower, Hue, Vietnam

Ceramic window, Hue, Vietnam

Cute little doorway, Hue, Vietnam

Beautiful gardens of a pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

Side street gateway, Hue, Vietnam

A new fruit for us- anyone know what it is?

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

Wooden window on pink, Hue, Vietnam

A peeking hole, Hue, Vietnam

Our bus from Hue to Hoi An was a Sinh Tours special- the original Vietnamese tourist bus company, which began in the early 1990's to cater to the need of travellers. These days they are extremely well organized, and used by locals and tourists alike. Upon arrival in Hoi An, we were dismayed to discover the prices of the guest houses were much higher than we had become used to in the rest of Vietnam. After traipsing around for a while, we stumbled across an incredible family run guest house with rooms set in a garden down a quiet back street. The bathroom was an alfresco affair, and overall it was probably one of the fanciest rooms we've ever had. At 295,000 dong/AU$17, it was cheaper than all the other rooms we had looked at and we were quite happy to settle in this oasis and stay a week in Hoi An.

Spot the happy camper! Hoi An, Vietnam

An Bang was a agreeable seaside village with shady back streets filled with low key guest houses and restaurants, behind a reasonable beach. When one is from Australia and spends some of every year on Thailand's Andaman coast, beach standards become quite high! An old couple with a shack on the beach were happy for people to relax on one of their loungers with an umbrella in return for ordering a couple of beers (no hardship!), and it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. The water was freezing, but refreshing and calm enough for swimming, and although we mostly stayed in the shade, we still managed to become sunburnt.

Conical squid boats, An Bang beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

View north from An Bang beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

We hired bicycles from the guest house, and absolutely loved the freedom and relative coolness of whizzing along the quieter smaller streets and tree lined lane ways of the outlying village areas around Hoi An. The downside was having to ride on the scary main roads, with erratic traffic, drivers not looking where they were going, and as previously mentioned, very commonly driving down the wrong side of the road. The scenery in the more rural parts was simply lovely, farms growing long squashes, chillies and corn, islands with rustic bridges, small pastel coloured village houses and holy buildings covered in flowers and growing neat little rows of herbs in their gardens. The rice paddy fields were not at their most scenic, as it was the burning off time. Thankfully for our bums, the surrounding area was mostly flat, and we were happy to stop now and then for a much needed drink and sit down from a coconut or sugar cane juice vender.

Colourful and unique lotus tower, Hoi An, Vietnam

Rural scene, Hoi An, Vietnam

Rustic bridge, Hoi An, Vietnam

Getting out and about, Hoi An, Vietnam

Rest stop, Hoi An, Vietnam

We had a couple of ventures into Hoi An's intensified old town- a surprisingly tiny area, but packed full of heritage buildings, most of which now house tourist related businesses- hotels, restaurants, cafes or souvenir shops. Rising early to beat the crowds, we were able to see the place in relative serenity. The yellow walls were picturesque and covered in beautiful flowering vines, and things seemed lovingly restored for the most part. We were able to inspect the details of the exteriors while the businesses were still shut. Hoi An began as a trading town in the 15th century, and many buildings here built by the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese were hundreds of years old.

Side street, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

The famous Japanese Bridge, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

The flowers everywhere were beautiful, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Bikes against a mouldy wall, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

One of many historic buildings, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Still used as a means of transport, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Inviting place for a coffee, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Local man, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Gorgeous colours, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

We read a recommendation to visit the heritage area at night and see the lights and lanterns in the old town and on the river, but the hundreds of Asian tourists everywhere taking selfies and jumping in and out of boats were overwhelming and made the ambience excessively crowded, noisy and very unpleasant. Apparently since 1995, tens of thousands of rooms have sprung up in Hoi An to cater for the Asian tourist market. For a town supposedly protected by it's UNESCO status, it seems to be growing out of control.

Nearly hidden, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

River at night, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

A quiet street at night, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Lanterns galore, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

The constant double pricing system in Hoi An wore us down a bit, but because of our previous weeks travel, we knew the rough price of items, and were usually able to good naturedly bargain the price down. It was definitely a bit more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam overall, with accommodation being the biggest drain.

Quiet morning, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Setting up for morning coffees, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Quiet breakfast, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Yin and yang, Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Hoi An's cuisine is famous world wide, and we were curious to try a few of the local dishes. Cao lau, a chewy rice flour noodle dish served with greens, pork and crispy bits of something was delicious, as was the mi quang, another noodle dish (rice noodles this time), which had a different flavour and the addition of prawns. White Rose dumplings, or bahn bao vac, and banh xeo (a rice flour pancake) were both served in every restaurant, and were more yummy specialities to try. Bia tuoi, or "fresh beer" which seemed to be the same thing as bia hoi in the north, was a welcome addition, and at 3,000 d/AU0.17 a glass, it was cheaper than water, and accompanied most of our meals.

"White Rose" dumplings and Hoi An style spring rolls, Hoi An, Vietnam

Cao lau noodles, Hoi An, Vietnam

Banh xeo (rice flour pancakes)

Typical tables after being vacated by Vietnamese!!

Our love of trains saw us booking a sleeper class bed to take us back to Saigon. Although the price was quite high compared to what we had being paying on buses (and actually any other country we compared it to), we thought we'd go for it, and take the cheapest option- two top bunks in a six sleeper berth. When we boarded the train at 10 am, we were surprised to find all the beds made up, and nowhere for us to sit. So we slithered up to the top bunks (the only way to enter them), and prepared to spend the entire journey up there with no space to sit up or able to see out the windows. Luckily, we had crosswords and music to keep us occupied. It wasn't the greatest experience, mainly because on Vietnamese trains the six beds are in a small, cramped compartment with a door that closes, so we were locked in there for 22 hours with two Vietnamese families, no fresh air, and all the noises and smells that we couldn't escape from. The smells included pooey nappies, left over food and the egg smelling farts emitting from the old lady below. The noises of snoring, a whining toddler and incessant loud chattering that didn't stop from day break onwards, added to the usual annoying mobile phone music. Needless to say, we were relieved to arrive at Saigon station the following morning, even if we were three hours late. The fare was 751,000 d/AU$43 each.

Up on the top bunk for 22 hours!! Da Nang to Saigon, Vietnam

Pretty clean toilet onboard train, Dan Bng to Saigon, Vietnam


Vietnamese Buddhist temples are a really interesting mix of spiritual influences. Buddha is often joined by a huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy- sometimes looking very Christian Mary-like, and sometimes with many arms similar to the Indian God Kali. Bits of Taoism, Confucianism, folk spirituality, ancestor worship, Khmer-looking four headed figures and a few bearded Chinese Gods are usually thrown in for good measure. They were colourfully eclectic, and we were surprised that people often left their shoes on inside the shrines. We were a bit confused with the many monk-types with their different coloured robes- both men and women. Some had grey or brown, others the familiar saffron, and other still were in white.

Four-headed God, Buddhist temple, Vietnam

Chinese-looking chappie, Buddhist temple, Vietnam

Unknown figure, Buddhist temple, Vietnam

Another intriguing sight seen whilst travelling in Vietnam was the many socialist style statues, that reminded us very much of our trip to Central Asia last year.


A bit of a summing up of our experiences in Vietnam:

Overall, transport in Vietnam was excellent. As previously stated, the long distance sleeper buses with various companies were easy to use, cheap and comfortable. Shorter local buses were excellent value and motorbike taxis filled the gaps when they weren't available. Trains were quite a bit more expensive than the buses. Seats for train day trips were roomy and convenient, while our night sleeper experience was dire (see above!).

Rooms were a higher standard than in many other South East Asian countries, and even in smaller towns we easily found rooms without booking, and generally found them to be good value for money. All rooms we stayed in had AC, satellite TV, WIFI, hot water, private bathroom, towels, toilet paper, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, soap, and a used comb, and some had condoms, free water, fan and a fridge. Prices ranged between 120,000 d/AU$7 and 300,000 d/AU$17, usually the price depending on the amount of tourists in the place, rather than the standard of the room. 

We've talked quite a lot about the yummy Vietnamese foods previously, but overall, the food experience depended on which towns we were visiting. For example, the Mekong Delta street food was a bit more basic, whilst in Hoi An we ate more in restaurants where there was an English menu and therefore had more choice. It was great to try many new dishes, although we were a bit unadventurous when it came to the many dishes with unknown parts of meat in them- maybe we missed out on some special meals! Our picnics from produce from the markets were also enjoyable and fun. We adored the coffee culture, which actually improved the level of our travel experience. Food certainly wasn't expensive, with meals costing anywhere between 20,000 d/AU$1.20 for a basic street meal to 100,000 d/AU$6 for a big meal in a proper restaurant with drinks.

Final meal in Vietnam, bo kho, or beef stew

Overall, our travels in Vietnam were positive and enriching. We finally got to see much of the south- long on our list of places to see, and our curiosities were satisfied. The Mekong Delta was the real revelation- totally not what we had expected, and a refreshing and invigorating start to the trip. Although the Central Highlands area was a little short on sights, we enjoyed exploring lesser visited parts, and finding our own special places. The coast was pretty much what we had expected, but the pay off for the hundreds of tourists and all the tour buses and crowds that go with them, was to be lucky enough to visit two of the most historic, interesting and atmospheric places on our trip- Hue and Hoi An. The only disadvantage for us to travelling in Vietnam, was the huge amount of traffic absolutely everywhere- 99% of it motorbikes. The constant noise and and hectic mood it created were wearing, and after 2.5 months, we were happy to leave it behind. On the plus side, we were pleasantly surprised at the genuine friendliness of people almost everywhere we went. It will be what we remember the most about our time in Vietnam.