Water water everywhere…
If there is a God, and there clearly isn’t, you’d have thought he would have done a better job with the water distribution across the planet. He’s really cocked that one up. While other countries are starving & in drought, this one has more than it needs and most of it is unusable, you really don’t want to drink this stuff.
We’ve ended up in Hanoi, north Vietnam a few days earlier than originally planned. We were supposed to go from Can Tho, which I’ll tell you about in a moment, to Saigon to Hoi An, a pretty, car free, town on the coast. We were really looking forward to being in Hoi An for a few days, it’s a food Mecca, and had planned a cooking tour, general beach splatting and food scoffing. But central Vietnam has experienced the worst flooding in 16 yrs so Hoi An was literally under water.
We’ve now got about 8 days to spend in Hanoi, which I am already pretty much smitten with. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, this one has had an instant connection with me. It’s noisy, infested with scooters, hectic, messy and beautiful, but tameable. I could live here. Px & I are already pointing out places we could snap up. My suggestions tend to veer towards the old dilapidated French, shutter fronted colonial buildings, that would make stunning hotels and are probably already owned by by the government or diplomats. Paul pulls my finger in the opposite direction to the skinny but tall, five story buildings of one bed flats with little wrought iron balconies, dirty ochre coloured walls, smothered and suffocated behind the thick twisted snakes of power cables. Full of character with, I imagine, very challenging plumbing, but more in our price range. The voice of reason.
Our journey on main land Vietnam started with an incredible couple of days on the Mekong Delta. Px has worked so hard to make this trip amazing and he really pulled this part out the magic hat. We took the short flight from Phu Quoc to Can Tho, and taxied it to what seemed like “the sticks”. Except where there are usually sticks, there is now water, everywhere. The taxi takes us down tiny roads, hemmed in by brown fast running torrents on either side, passing homes and shops perched between road and river, until we reach our “shack”.
The Nguyen Shack ☑is nothing short of a total joy of an experience. Made so entirely due to its incredible location combined with the people who run it. It’s is a simple, basic series of bamboo walled rooms, on stilts, on the Delta, with a shared shower and toilet, a little restaurant and a whole load of laughing and energy from the local crew. There are a series of excursions that they offer, including the early morning boat trip to Cai Rang ☑ floating market, a bike trip around the local villages, and a sunset food tour. All led by the knowledgeable, grinning girls and boys who work there.
We stayed two nights, got reasonably savaged by mosquitoes, but it’s been such a highlight of the trip so far. To get to Cai Rang market, we were up at 5am to get on the long, wooden 10 seater outboard motor that wound its way along the tributaries, and onto the main river of the Mekong. As we passed houses balanced on stilts and projecting into the river, we saw people preparing for their day. A lady performing some strange kind of self slapping, otherwise known as exercising, kids rushing about getting dressed for school, fires on tiny stoves being lit for the days cooking. We caught privileged glimpses though narrow doors of these riverside houses of how these people live.
They build out into the river as there are no taxes if you build off land, so only a section of the buildings are touching the river bank to keep the costs down. As our boat swung into the main part of the Mekong, it was like merging traffic on the motorway. This river is huge, and busy; I didn’t really know what to expect from Cai Rang floating market, but it wasn’t anything like I could have imagined. Clusters of huge wooden boats, stacked with fruit and veg produce are strapped together, or anchored separately, selling their wares to other wholesalers, shops, restaurants etc. Buzzing between the ark like boats are smaller outboard motors, steered one footed, by standing women selling drinks, coffee and breakfasts. One such boat pulled up beside ours, hooked herself on and sold us hot sweet coffees.
Our guide knew the best places to eat and we motored alongside a tiny boat serving up the most delicious pork Pho. This “River Food” stall has been serving up this perfect morning dish for over 20yrs, and I don’t know if it was the surroundings, 6.30am in the morning light, on a boat on the god damn Mekong Delta, and the experience of that which made it so tasty or just the fact that it was a beautifully spiced bowl of food.
We chugged about the market for a while longer, seeing the lifestyle of the wholesalers who live on the river. Houses floated on barrels like rafts, all serviced with electricity and satellite dishes so they can watch the football. Even in the middle of the river, football comes first.
Vietnam loves plastic. Bags, bags within bags, straws, bags to wrap your straws in, even napkins are individually wrapped in plastic. And it shows in the river, three times our outboard motor had to stop to remove plastic that had wrapped itself around the propeller. The litter here is really bad, and it’s triggering our eco warrior instincts that we never knew we really had until we’ve now seen first hand, how vile it really is. Even on Phu Quoc island, resort land, the sea was baldly scarred with plastic.
The rest of our stay at “The Shack” included the gentle bike tour around the local village, visiting schools, a monastery which takes in orphans, and a rice wine distillery. Nothing less than an outbuilding in someone’s back yard making moonshine, or “happy water”. This stuff is rocket fuel, and could probably cure cancer as well as cause it, if given the chance. The “happy” pigs in the pen next to the distillery are fed the discarded by products of the wine which is only sold amongst the locals, in plastic bags and a straw…of course.
One short night in Can Tho produced some excellent street food at the night market, but the town didn’t throw itself into our hearts as we expected it to, mainly due to the lack of bars!
Saigon, Ho Chi Minh
Back on dry land and into the city again. We arrived in Saigon via a three hour ride on a recliner bus. Despite being the middle of the day the only option was to lie down on these fully reclined seats, we had the whole back of the bus to ourselves, so we camped out with snacks and drinks and kipped our way to Saigon. Sometimes the journeys in between are the best bits.
This city catered well for Px, as it is home of many of the major craft beer breweries in Vietnam, names which we have seen many times since in the bars of Hanoi. So our two nights in Saigon involved multiple stops at brewery tap rooms, Pasteur St Brewing Co ☑& Heart of Darkness ☑ for instance, all very familiar style brands and bars to us Londoners and complete with tattooed & bearded, beer geeky customers.
We hit the Ben Thanh Street Food Market ☑ (not to be confused with the original Benh Thanh central market) all set under one roof, lots of hygienic and varied food stalls, a big seating area and the best covers band EVER, Just A Band ☑. They were so good they distracted us from what we were eating, but encouraged us to stay and keep drinking over priced cocktails, and shouting and banging on the tables “More! More! More!” every time they announced that was their last song. It might have been the booze but I swear they did the best version of Poker Face I’ve ever heard. #AsianGaga
Yes it was a bit western and yes it was full of travellers but we bloody loved it.
The Vietnamese love nitrox oxide (hippy crack). Who knew?! It’s very weird to see. We’re so used to seeing the discarded capsules littering the streets of London, especially outside clubs and festivals, where they’d been clandestinely bought and consumed in darkened streets. Here you’ll see a table of 6 people order a round of drinks and a balloon each, and start huffing away at them openly like candy, it’s really bizarre. One guy we were sitting near, ordered several with his mates, then ordered himself one massive double sized balloon, the size of a luxury pillow, which he sucked away at merrily for the next 10minutes until he’d inhaled the lot, and exhaled most of his brain cells.
We ate well in Saigon, we Googled “Best Banh Mi in Saigon” which resulted in a visit to Huynh Hoa ☑ a bakery similar to the Beigel Bake ☑ on Brick Lane, where we queued behind parked scooters, and locals and tourists alike for this meat crammed, buttery bread baguette and munched our way down the street. On our second night we were slightly more restrained after our table stomping session at the night market the previous evening, and ate at the lovely Den Long ☑ Vietnamese restaurant specialising in claypot pork and excellent cocktails.
Saigon / Ho Chi Minh, was cool, two days was enough to get a sense of the place though. One resounding sound of the city was the Bladerunner style tannoy announcements from the push bikes selling snacks, they record a description of what they are selling and play it on loop as they walk through the streets. The place echoes with these tinny recordings.
Next up Hanoi.