Thursday, 30 April 2015

Overnight trains in Vietnam

To get from Nha Trang to Hoi An we decided to take an overnight train. I say "we" decided, however I think my fellow travellers were a bit more dubious about this method of travel than I was! I thought it would be fun! An adventure! A way to see more of Vietnam! I'm not sure they were convinced, but everyone went along with it anyway.


There is no train station (or airport) in Hoi An. The nearest city is Danang, where you can get a bus to Hoi An, I think. It's about a half hour drive away. We took the very middle class option of having the hotel we were staying at pick us up, for about $25 US.

We booked our tickets through Vietnam Impressive, who I would recommend. Originally we booked a 4 berth soft sleeper, costing $214 US total for all four beds. I thought this was reasonable, but apparently its way more than it would cost you if you went to the train station and purchased your tickets yourself, although of course you risk the trains being sold out. The train was to depart Danang at 8pm, arriving at 6am the following morning. Not the best time to arrive, but our hotel was willing to pick us up then and said we could still use the pool and everything until our rooms were ready. 

Unfortunately, about a month before our trip we got an email from Vietnam Impressive saying that they would not be able to give us those tickets anymore, as government officials had decided to book out the same train! After a lot of back and forth, they offered us all 6 beds in a 6 bed hard sleeper on a later train that evening. Reluctantly we took this, as the only other option would have been to fly, and flights were over $300 each at that point. 

The only difference between the 4 bed soft sleeper and the 6 bed hard sleeper is, as you can probably work out, that there are 6 beds instead of 4 in each compartment, and the mattresses are much thinner on the hard sleepers. Other than that they are the same, and both berths are air-conditioned, which was my main concern. Our train was now at a more reasonable time, leaving Nha Trang at 9:30pm and arriving the next morning in Danang at 8:30am.

Vietnam Impressive delivered our tickets to our hotel in Nha Trang. They came with a note warning us about a few things: mainly to not let anyone (conductors) tell us that we owed them more money, to lock the door to our berth, and if anyone was already in our berth when we got on the train to kick them out. Yikes! I actually hid this warning from Andy, thinking it would just stress him out. He found it about an hour before we were to get on the train and he was not happy!

The train station in Nha Trang is pretty boring, just a waiting room with a small kiosk where you can buy a few snacks and water. Everyone we spoke to said NOT to eat the food on the train, so we had brought a few granola bars with us to get us through the night. We got there about 45 minutes early, although there is absolutely no need to be this early for your train unless you still need to purchase tickets. When the train came we got on and not surprisingly there was a guy in our compartment. I was the first one in and told him (loudly) to leave, and he did, without much fuss. I think he was drunk, there seemed to be a lot of drunk men on the train with us. We then had to get all clean linen from the conductors as people had already been sleeping in our berths - ew!

Once we had all new linen we locked ourselves in our compartment, and as it was already past 10pm we decided to just try and sleep. Claire pretty much slept the whole way, I was super jealous, that girl can sleep anywhere, anytime! She even slept through three separate occasions where drunk men managed to open our (supposedly locked) door and try to get in. Each time they were met with Andy jumping up and yelling at them to get out. They didn't seem aggressive, I think they were just drunk and didn't know where their berth was, but it was still annoying and a bit unnerving that someone could get in past the locked door. The toilets were pretty gross, and being pregnant I had to go a few times in the night. There were squatting toilets and Western toilets, and in this case squatting was definitely the better option. The smell was pretty terrible though!

Other than our drunk visitors the rest of the train ride was pretty uneventful. I felt like I was awake a lot, but it went by pretty quickly so I must have got some sleep in. I'd take the train again if we travel around Vietnam another time, but I would really have rather been in the 4 bed soft sleeper! We arrived in Danang on time, with our driver there waiting to take us to our amazing hotel in Hoi An. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Nha Trang

Ah, what can I say about our time in Nha Trang? It's the beach capital of Vietnam, located on the southeastern coast. We flew there from Ho Chi Minh City, which took about an hour with VietJet airlines, Vietnam's low cost airline. I must say for a budget flight it was pretty good, nice new planes with decent legroom. If you don't want to brave the trains to travel around the country, this is a good option.

Our taxi from the airport took us along the beautiful coastline, past posh resorts and lush golf courses. And then, about half an hour later, you arrive in Nha Trang. I feel like Nha Trang is Vietnam's version of Surfer's Paradise, or Magaluf in Spain. A beautiful beach, but you don't really want to turn around and look at the city behind you. If you like bright, neon signs out front of every single shop/restaurant/hotel, you will love this place.

We stayed at the Dendro Hotel, on the main road Tran Phu, which runs parallel to the beach. Upon arrival, we were told we had been upgraded to a Sea view room. Fantastic! We did have an excellent view of the sea... unfortunately this also came with the noise of the road and Russian Karaoke until about 1:30am in the morning. I have a sneaky suspicion our "upgrade" came as a result other guests demanding to be moved rooms, as we did after the first night. There was nothing wrong with this hotel per se, and the staff were lovely as we'd come to expect in Vietnam. However there is no way I would stay here again, even for the low price of $35US/night that we paid! 

View from our Sea view room
Nha Trang Beach
After dropping our bags off we headed straight for lunch and the beach. We ended up at Louisiana Brew House, located beach side, complete with swimming pool, lounge chairs, pool table, and brewery. The food here was ok, not spectacular, with a range of Western and Vietnamese dishes. Andy and Lee had the tasting flight of beers, sampling four of the beers brewed on site. The sun loungers here cost 40,000 for the day, and there is no expectation that you will order food or drink from them (although of course you will). Around 5pm they start to pack up the sun loungers which was a bit of a shock as we were enjoying our relaxing beach time, so we went back to the hotel to rest and get ready for dinner. 

Louisiana Brew House
It was a bit of a mission finding a place to eat on our first night. Good old TripAdvisor recommendations didn't seem to help, and the neon signs and picture menus can really put you off a place. I forgot to mention that Nha Trang is very popular with Russians, as there is a direct charter flight straight in from Moscow. I'm assuming it's the quickest and cheapest sun destination for them. We ended up at Olivia, a really nice Italian where we all had satisfying thin crust pizzas. After dinner we headed over to the Sailing Club for a few drinks on the beach. There was a bonfire on the beach and pretty good music, I think this is the kind of place you would come if you were looking for a bit of a party!

The next day Lee and Claire left for a day and night at a very posh resort. Little did Claire know, but Lee was going to propose to her! She said yes, so it was all very exciting when they came back the next day. Andy is going to be best man, and so we will have our third wedding in three years to go back to the UK for next year!

   

Andy and I spent the morning getting coffee and breakfast (Our hotel offered breakfast but Lee and Claire told us it was pretty bad so we decided to go out). We loved Cuppa Coffee for our Vietnamese drip coffee, where we discovered there was a TOMS shoe store. I love TOMS. If I could just wear them and Havaianas for the rest of my life I'd be pretty happy. Anyway we had a great time trying on loads of different styles, unfortunately for Andy they did not have big enough sizes for him. I ended up getting 2 pairs, and at about $30 (Australian) each I was pretty happy that I'd got a bargain. Until later, when we came to the realisation that they were probably fake :( Devastated! I went online and there is no record of stores in Vietnam on the TOMS website. The store looked so legit, I can't believe we were totally scammed! There is nothing wrong with them or anything, it's just that one of the great things about TOMS (besides being super comfy) is that for every pair of shoes you buy they give a pair of shoes to someone in need. So, if these were fake, then obviously this hasn't happened. Sigh. Well, there is nothing I can do about it now. 



That afternoon we decided to go to a different beach, called Bai Dai, about 20km north of Nha Trang. This beach was beautiful and much quieter than the main beach in Nha Trang. We hung out at a place on the beach called The Shack, which is a restaurant and also a surf shack owned by a French couple where you can rent surfboards, stand-up paddle boards, jet skis and kayaks. We spent the day reading and dozing in deck chairs, which was just perfect!



Pho!
For dinner back in Nha Trang we had one of the cheapest/best meals in Vietnam. At Galangal they serve street food and authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a "safe" environment (aka not from some dodgy street vendor - critical when you are pregnant!) Highly recommend this place, the food is not adapted to Western tastes, and like I said it was really cheap, the two of us feasted like kings for under 300,000 dong.

For our last day we decided to hit the sun loungers at Louisiana Brew House again. We briefly considered checking out the Egg Mud Baths, but it was just too hot to do anything but lay around and take occasional dips in a pool! We feasted at Galangal again for dinner, this time taking Lee and Claire, before heading back to the Dendro to clean up and get ready for our overnight train to Hoi An.  What an experience that was!
Pork wraps at Galangal
Overall, Nha Trang was good for a beach stop on our trip. However it was our least favourite place in Vietnam and not somewhere I would return to if we were back in the country. 


Friday, 10 April 2015

Ho Chi Minh Highlights

We arrived in HCMC on a Saturday night around 6pm. Lee and Claire were meant to arrive half an hour later, but unfortunately their plane had been delayed nearly 2 hours, so it was quite late by the time we set off for our hotel. We changed over some money at the airport, as the research I had done prior to the trip said we'd get the best rate if we changed our money once we got to Vietnam. The rate we got was $1 AUD = 16,500 dong, which was close to the rate quoted on xe.com, which was just over 16,600 dong. Other than change money, there is not much to do at this airport - it's big and clean but pretty boring! 


This trip is the first time I've visited Asia so I wasn't sure what to expect. HCMC is huge; much, much bigger than I thought it would be! Traffic is what I imagined, seems chaotic to a Westerner, but actually compared to India it seems pretty tame. Our first couple of times crossing the street were pretty scary, but we realized that you basically just have to go... walk straight and keep a steady pace! Those on scooters will slow down and avoid you. Once you've been here a while you realize that the way traffic flows is pretty impressive. Everyone seems to drive the same speed not many are swerving in and out, and there is little to no road rage. A sort of organized chaos. 


HCMC is very hot and humid this time of year, temperatures were in the mid-thirties and so you basically start sweating the moment you walk outside. 

The city is divided up into Districts, making it sound like you are in the Hunger Games! We were staying in District 1 which is where most tourists sites are, along with District 3 which is apparently the posh bit of the city.

Here are some high (and low!) lights from our 2 days spent here:

The hotel we stayed in was the Beautiful Saigon 3 (there are 2 other Beautiful Saigons nearby). Our rooms were small and windowless, but are clean and relatively modern with good air-conditioning, free wifi and free breakfast. All of the Beautiful Saigon hotels are in the main backpacker area called Pham Ngu Lao, in District 1. It's pretty noisy and hectic at night. In this way I'm glad for the no windows as we can't hear a thing from the streets! Also for $50 per night including breakfast it was a pretty good deal. The staff were very good here, and I'd stay here again if it wasn't for the no windows (I think if you pay for a better room you get windows).

Beautiful Saigon breakfast area
Bui Vien from above

Our first morning here Andy and I both woke up at 3:30am and could not get back to sleep. We finally got up around 6am and ventured outside for a coffee and walk around. We discovered Sozo, a coffee shop about a five minutes walk from our hotel on Bui Vien, one of the main streets in the Pham Ngu Lao area. The Vietnamese coffee was a bit more expensive there than you'd pay at some other places - 25,000 dong for a black coffee and 40,000 if you want it with condensed milk (which I did - so yummy!) but we went here as this cafe trains and employs disadvantaged people to work there. Getting up early to enjoy the slightly cooler mornings and less traffic, walk around and go for a coffee turned into a routine for us while we stayed in HCMC; it was a great way to people watch and start the day.

Watching the world go by at Sozo Cafe
We discovered that if you go to a Western looking coffee shop you pay Western prices for a coffee! We made the mistake of this once, but never again!

Traditional Vietnamese "drip" coffee
Our first morning we headed to the War Remnants Museum (which used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). It was a very confronting experience, and I must admit I know very little about the Vietnam war. There are American war planes and tanks outside, and inside are photographs from the war. The ground floor shows posters and photographs from antiwar movement internationally, while the top two floors are mostly photographs of those affected by the war. It is pretty horrifying to see the civilian cost of war in such detail, however it is an important part of history and I would recommend checking it out. Entry is 15,000 dong.

Walking through Culture Park on our way to the War Remnants Museum
Fighter jet outside the War Remnants Museum
After the museum we were so hot we decided to pay $6 US to use the rooftop pool at the Rex Hotel. It was a lovely afternoon spent relaxing, swimming, reading, and drinking overpriced beers (for the boys) and coconut juice (for Claire and me). We also ate lunch here which was a HUGE mistake, it was expensive and not very good. They also had an amazing looking gym however it was about $20 US if we wanted to use that as well which was pretty steep! I'd pay the $6 again and again on a hot day though!

Chilling out at the Rex Hotel
Ben Thanh Market is a huge covered market selling pretty much everything and anything. I could only last so long in here, it was very hot and stuffy and mainly full of knock-offs and tourist junk - not my kind of thing! They also sell food, kitchenware, candy, fresh flowers, etc. I think the key here is to know what you want and to bargain as apparently they will quote tourists 50-100% more than what they would normally sell things for, no surprise there! 

We treated ourselves to some spa treatments at the Beautiful Saigon Spa, which was affiliated with our hotel chain. There are millions of spas around HCMC ranging from dirt cheap to comparable to what you would pay at home. This one was somewhere in the middle, I had a spa pedicure and foot massage for 270,000 dong, and Andy had a 45 minute massage for about 300,000. Both were well worth the price!

Eating was a bit hit or miss for us. I've decided (after our first night) that I am pretty much done with just wandering around a new city hoping to find an amazing restaurant to eat at. I guess that makes me a pretty unadventurous traveler, but frankly I don't care! There is so much information on the internet now, between other bloggers and sites like TripAdvisor, that I feel like a little research can go a long way. Our first stop after dropping our bags at our hotel was at La Casa, which was a Mexican on the corner of Bui Vien and our hotel. I know, I know, Mexican?! But it was really just to stop and get a drink and catch up with Lee and Claire, who we hadn't seen since July. We had some nachos as a little appetiser before moving on to find dinner. 
First beers with Lee at La Casa Restaurant
Bui Vien is full of small restaurants that are packed with people, with seating spilling out onto the entire pavement. We went to a BBQ place that looked ok, and was just that, ok. Hence the desire to actually look something up the next time we ate! The two restaurants we ended up at over the next two nights were called Papaya and Propaganda. Propaganda was by far our favourite, a self-described "Vietnamese Bistro". The food is not traditional Vietnamese apparently, but we were all very satisfied with our meals. Dinner with appetizers and drinks ended up being about 300,000 each. Papaya was highly recommended, as the chef has a lot of experience working in top hotel restaurants. The food was traditional Northern Vietnamese. We were less satisfied with this, our meals were good (although Andy hated his) but nothing amazing




As far as drinking goes, there is a huge variety in prices depending on where you go. The main beer here is called Saigon, and the cheapest price we found was 12,000 for a bottle at a little stand on across from La Casa restaurant called Coffee Break. On the other end of the spectrum, we went to the rooftop bar at the Sheraton Hotel where you pay for the spectacular view. Cocktails here were about 180,000 (still way cheaper than in Australia, but expensive for Vietnam). I was obviously a very cheap date this whole trip being pregnant! I must say I've had enough fruit juices and smoothies to last me a while, although I did love that you can get fresh coconut juice pretty much anywhere! 

Cheap beers and deep conversations at Break Time Coffee


On our second day we went on a tour of the Mekong Delta. We booked this hastily through our hotel, and it think it was through TNK Travel. It was probably our least favourite day in Vietnam. Probably not worth doing just a day tour as it was over 2 hours of driving each way and even then you are just at the start of the Mekong Delta. We stopped at a pagoda, went on a boat ride, ate a horrible lunch, then visited a coconut farm. This was probably the best bit, they showed us how they made delicious coconut candy and we bought some to take home. We also went on a smaller boat ride through narrower rivers and saw a group of men hunting amongst the huge reeds which was cool. We then visited a beekeeper who helped people dip their fingers into a swarm of bees to taste fresh honey, and then listened to a live performance of traditional Vietnamese folk music. It was a full day tour, we were picked up at our hotel around 7:30am and then dropped back at 5pm. It was only 210,000 dong each, so I guess you get what you pay for! I would not do this again, or find a better tour company. 

Biggest Buddah ever!

Mekong Delta


After 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh we packed up and headed off to our next destination, Nha Trang, to get some sun and beach time. I really liked HCMC and would spend time exploring more of the other Districts if I ever go back. We also didn't have time to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, however my pregnant belly would not have fit through them anyway!