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Ray Renfrey is the most amazing traveller who connects to people wherever he goes. We had the joy of putting together a Tailor Made Tour of Vietnam, China and Brunei for him as part of a huge overseas trip that he took in June 2017.
Here are some of Ray's great photos and tales from Vietnam:
I am in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) population: 8.5 million. Vietnam population: 92 million. These are estimated figures - if you ask 3 people the same questions you will receive 3 different answers!
My hotel is excellent value, I chose 3 Star because of only staying a short time in each city in Vietnam. My room is clean & comfortable, breakfast very good.
First I had breakfast of local fruit including one named 'Dragon fruit' - interesting soft white flesh with what looked like 100s of black seeds. To me the taste was rather bland. The English style breakfast was good.
On leaving the hotel I was surrounded by many street vendors wanting to sell me all manner of goods such as t-shirts, sunglasses, wood carvings, toys, etc. The vendors create a human barrier - one needed to be a contortionist to pass through them!
If you decide to purchase you should barter over price and this is when the fun really begins. I am not an expert in bartering and there does not seem to be a formula to follow but I suggest you try it (keep your nerve) - you might be surprised in your effort.
My guide Hoa, and driver Cong both were informative and helpful to me.
Traffic in HCMC is chaos. The locals obviously know the road culture (but not this uneducated Aussie). Some bicycles drive towards you in your lane. There is no order such as slow vehicles in the slow lane, I am told the vehicle in front of you can swap lanes at any moment without signalling to the vehicles behind. All very strange to a visitor schooled in Western road rules! I did not see a vehicle crash nor a pedestrian injured so the locals seem to know what to do when using roads. Frankly the roads of Vietnam are MORE than an adventure in thrills and "heart in mouth" moments - I suggest you experience road travel in Vietnam!
Millions of mobile scooters dominate the vehicular traffic, they carry all manner of cargo, people & animals. I saw 4 people one motorbike, one with a a driver & 10 crates of chickens - I could quote many more equally eye opening examples!
We drive to the Cu Chi tunnels, the journey is over an hour thru bustling streets & roads teeming with humanity, and the ceaseless noise of drivers tooting horn (the reason why I am yet to learn). Soon we are in the countryside, less human habitation but still we are never out of sight of people & their daily activity. Many small home industry is in operation such as metal fabrication, mechanical repairs, furniture making and boxing various fruits for markets.
Rubber plantations are still producing , but as world wide demand is reducing so is production The bowl I am holding contains latex direct from the rubber tree.
The hi-lite of the day is a visit to Cu Chi Tunnels, one must visit to understand the work and planning which was required to achieve the goal - the tunnels were constructed during the Vietnam War (Vietnamese call it the American War).
The Cu Chi tunnels were built by local fighters during the Indochina conflict as a base from which the Viet Cong could operate from, close to the Southern Vietnamese capital. Initial construction started in 1948 when the Viet Minh required somewhere to hide from French air attacks and by 1965, the Cu Chi tunnel complex was estimated to consist of 200km's of tunnels. It included, hospitals, schools, meeting rooms, kitchens and sleeping quarters. Life was difficult for the inhabitants and to protect against outside intruders bobby traps were laid throughout the complex.
The Viet Cong slept, cooked, schooled, had children, repaired weapons, manufactured weapons , clothes & shoes amongst other activity in the tunnels.
Tho' Vietnam has a Communist government, capitalism is alive & thriving. There is a distinct air of competition in all aspects of life, especially so in Saigon. You are pursued on streets by all manner of vendors, & when ever you look at a shop display someone will approach with an offer you cant refuse - they will even include a free set of steak knives! It is like living in a 'hard sell' TV commercial!
I engaged in bartering at this shop and was pleased with my work I bought 3 t-shirts at $3 each, starting price was $7 each!
I am taken to the airport for a flight to Da Nang population: 2 million plus. Airport security demands I remove my shoes to pass thru the scanner. OMG! Be prepared for long delays at all airports - all countries are extremely security conscious especially China.
In the boarding queue I met a family of mother, son (about 12) and daughter (about 7). The little girl brightly said to me “Hello' in English (I am sure she was testing her skills). We gained an immediate communication, the little girl was as bright as a button and we had more conversation when we arrived at Da Nang.
My accommodation for 2 nights is in Hoi An. My guide & driver kept me amused on the 30 km drive from Da Nang to Hoi An. Along the beach front, resorts are being constructed - many are very palatial with facilities matching world standard. No high rise here, most are 5 story or less, and tropical flora is abundant. It is a comfortable non glitzy scene. I check into my clean, comfortable accommodation.
My guide meets me at 09:00 for a walking tour of the old town, but to get there we must use a vehicle, move over Marlon Brando (The Wild One). But unlike Marlon & Jack Nicholson, I rode a Vespa style bike as a pillion passenger!!
The walking tour of the old town is of interest & as usual plenty of surprises. There are two particular homes which are heritage listed, highly decorated wood panels & furniture abound & strict protocol was in force as to which residents could enter various places in the home. Needless to say it was a male dominated household!! What say you ladies?
As usual there is an uncountable number of shops you can be tempted by selling furniture, clothing, food, tourist needs, paintings, luggage, pottery...it is endless ! The tailoring is so quick you can order a tailor-made suit in the morning & pick it up late afternoon!
There are Pagodas, Temples, Shrines - all highly decorated & splendid.
Surprise surprise!! I hear a voice calling “HELLO.” It was the little girl & family I met yesterday at the airport. We spent a lovely half hour together.
Today, I travel from Hoi An to Hue (Whay) by car, then from Hue fly to Hanoi.
But firstly some trivia:
Homes are squeezed on to very narrow allotments and some signage is amusing:
Before my journey to Hue begins I must make a short journey 'by myself' - it is the most perilous journey I have made in life. I must cross a street from my Hotel to a cafe where I purchased Vietnamese take away food last night. I must return the bowl & cutlery, as you can no doubt tell I am still in one piece! I cannot explain adequately the perils of being a pedestrian in Vietnam!! (Drivers have an uncanny knack of just missing you).
Actually I now understand the road culture, one of my guides held my hand crossing a road and motioned to drivers by hand that they were to drive around us, it worked! There are painted pedestrian crossings, it is a waste of paint if you get my point!
We pass many beach resorts enroute to Da Nang and on the way to Hue. We reach the Marble Mountains, literally mountains of marble. It is a fascinating experience, various mountains yield different coloured marble mainly white, beigy orange & grey, Sandstone is also mined, there is also orange Jade but I doubt it is mined here.
Naturally my team of driver & guide know a great place to purchase all manner of carved marble, from the size of an egg cup to a 4 metre high statue of the 'Lady Buddha' or Jesus Christ. There are dozens of places which manufacture and thousands of items on display both in showrooms and external to the building, “mind blowing” …..
A Vietnamese hearse
We pass the fishing village - with 1000's of moored fishing boats in the harbour. One wonders will the fish survive a tempest of such magnitude! I fear regulation is lacking re the exploitation of the waters here. There are also massive oyster farms, and like Australia it is suffering a blight of disease in these waters.
We progress thru mountains with delightful views of the sandy beaches below, interestingly no houses (only Pagodas) are built on the mountain slopes, and people can only use designated beaches, isolated beaches are deserted.
Meet my driver Phan Xuan , and guide Pham Van Tuan for my journey from Hoi An to Hue, they also assisted my knowledge of how to barter.
The views are splendid.
Back to matters of the moment: we arrive in Hue, this is my favourite city in Vietnam. Streets are generally wide, most are tree lined, flowers abound, traffic is “less” chaotic, the pace less frantic. Population 2 million.
For lunch snails are on the menu, the snails are large in Vietnam. Perhaps the French created "Escargot" when they invaded Vietnam?
The beaches at resorts are kept in pristine condition.
I noticed a group of young men in fierce combat at a card game. It seemed similar to Eukare, I asked to join in but was not accepted.
Hue is the home of the Chinese Imperial Palace, (a must visit). China has a huge influence on Vietnam. I estimate the grounds of the Palace are about 20 hectares and maintained by manual labor.
Allow a visit of 4 hours to properly understand the surrounds and what was involved within the walls of the Imperial Palace - if you are interested in history you will be rewarded by a visit to the Imperial Palace.
The Palace consists of 3 separate buildings and each building tells a story. Example: one part of the Palace has 320 rooms, each room housed a Concubine. Nubiles watched over the Concubines and it is said the Emperor bedded every Concubine and as often as four times in one night. It is quoted he fathered in excess of 300 progeny.
The Palace was bombed during the French invasion resulting in much destruction and the Palace is in the process of restoration. Most of the gold you see is gold plate, the work is magnificent.
After two hours at the Palace (3 hours would have been better, even 4 hours) I fly to Hanoi.
I am greeted by a tropical downpour WOW! It is as though I need to board Noah's Arc..
I am met by driver and guide who deliver me to my hotel.
Hanoi is situated in the far North of Vietnam and less humid than the South. There is a rain storm in progress and various tree foliage gleam in the lights of our vehicle.
As per usual, my hotel is of good standard, clean comfortable & the staff are friendly,
It is early evening and nothing planned, so I have the chance to sit and reflect upon the previous days. I have come to the realisation I should be having more time in Vietnam. Circumstances allowed me only 6 days here whereas a stay of at least 10 days or more would be appropriate. I urge you to experience Vietnam you will not be disappointed.
Hanoi has an approximate population of 7.5 million AND OVER 5 MILLION MOTOR BIKES. These following photos show you some of the ways the motor bikes are used for commerce:
After having watched Vietnamese cross streets I now understand why Vietnamese who live in Australia cross streets without first looking... As a child I was taught the following lesson to cross a street: LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT AND LOOK RIGHT AGAIN, AND IF SAFE CROSS THE STREET. The street crossing culture in Vietnam is totally different to that in Australia, the Australian Government should advise all Asian immigrants and tourists there is a vast difference for crossing streets in Australia (seems sensible to me)!
My next day of travel will see me travel to Ha Long Bay, which I earnestly suggest should be added to your 'bucket list'.
Two days in Ha Long Bay and overnight on a Junk. We drive for 3 hours (180km) through continuous population interspersed with rice paddies, factories manufacturing for companies such as Canon, and endless shoe and clothing makers for world wide export.
Ha Long Bay is also an area of resorts, private apartments, Fun Parks and up markets shops. Large international cruise ships are moored at the Quay, the area has a Miami or Gold Coast feel to it.
I am delivered to the Quay, the smell of diesel adds to the experience. I board a Bun boat to take me to my accommodation (on the junk), there are dozens of Bun boats transiting passengers to and from large Junks and other accommodation vessels.
This is the Junk which is my overnight accommodation - it is fully equipped with mod cons, the food is high quality with interesting presentation and a variety of choices. My cabin is self contained and air-conditioned, the bed is comfortable with high quality linen.
Ha Long Bay has a landscape like no other place I have visited, the landscape is like living in a Harry Potter or Hobbit movie.
Note the construction atop this peak, one wonders how it was achieved.
The cruise is relaxing, it also has plenty of activities for passengers
I chose to watch the world pass by.
This chef amazed us with his artistic food sculpture.
The street vendors transformed into water vendors.
After two satisfying days in Ha Long Bay it is now time to return to Hanoi.
I am amazed at my drivers sense of direction, I have not seen a sign to direct him to Hanoi but I do see landmarks I noticed yesterday on the road to Ha Long Bay.
We have a coffee break, naturally we stop at a business which has all manner of goods for sale to tempt tourists into purchasing. This business has a silk producing department and silk is woven into all manner of goods especially clothing. My eye is taken by the area which produces woven tapestries and paintings, I am amazed by the intricate work and the patience of the weavers, this work is about one metre square.
In Hanoi I am met by my guide and he escorts me through the throng of traffic and street vendors to "The Water Puppet Show". The show is a most unique experience, it is a live show by about twenty performers (musicians and puppeteers). There are about 8 musicians performing traditional Vietnamese music. Dozens of Puppets perform in, on and under water - my camera could not capture the speed at which they move.
The master puppeteers take a bow from a satisfied audience
After the show I take my guide to dinner at a street cafe of his choice, the meal included many courses, each course was tempting and satisfying, the dishes overflowed with tasty content.
This is my last day of seven in Vietnam (much too short). I hope at sometime in the future I will revisit Vietnam for a more extended stay.
My next day will see me fly to Brunei and experience an Islamic country, Brunei is a totally "different" experience!! "VERY DIFFERENT".
Thanks so much Ray, we love your style of travel where you make friends wherever you go and observe and reflect on life.
To read about Ray's travels in China, click here.