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Trip Report So, why go to Vietnam?

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We're midway through a short trip to Vietnam.
This is a transcript of my daily blog.

Day 1
Given my aversion to noodle soup, humidity and (ever since I dislocated my knee playing netball),
squat toilets, South East Asia has never really been at the top of my travel list and yet, here I am, relaxing in an air conditioned hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City, recuperating from a fairly long travel day.
Several times lately, I've been asked why we chose Vietnam as a holiday destination, most recently by the dude at the car parking place last night-
" So, what takes you to Vietnam?"
With a red eye departure of midnight, I'd already had a long day so I gave the obvious answer of,
"A plane, I reckon!"
but it did give me cause to reflect on our decision making process.

It was actually a series of unfortunate events that led to this trip. Usually September is reserved for domestic travel but this year our spring vacation travel buddies are out of action while Maddy has chemo and it didn't feel right to be exploring other parts of Aus without them so we started exploring reasonably close, off shore options. Back in January, Sophie had a trip to Vietnam planned but a nasty injury to her partner put that trip on hold. And then, in serendipitous fashion, I was googling possible birthday gifts one afternoon just before Sophie's birthday and a super flight deal to Vietnam appeared in a pop up ad. Lots of people hate how the internet tracks their clicks and anticipates their every need but I quite like the way it tells me what I need before I even think of it. Killing two birds with one stone I sorted our September holidays and Soph's birthday present all in one. Of course by the time I paid for visas and vaccinations (not to mention baggage and food on the plane), it wasn't quite the bargain basement deal I started with, but c'est la vie.

We almost didn't make it onto the plane because coming through duty free we were offered a whiskey tasting. Never one to decline a free drink, I knocked back the minuscule shot in one go and in my greedy haste it caught in my throat. A coughing fit ensued and then something worse. It felt like a boa constrictor had hold of my neck. I couldn't breathe and just for a second I actually thought I might die. Luckily I had my own personal footy trainer with me and eventually some air trickled it's way back into my lungs. Dr Google tells me I suffered a laryngeal spasm. It's put me off whiskey until at least the end of this holiday!

Our flights were with Air Asia and the amount of raised eyebrows I got when I mentioned that to people had me a little worried but, apart from some general grottiness and an unfortunate incident with an unlocked toilet door, our flights today were on time and stress free. We were even lucky enough to have empty seats around us on both legs, giving us the luxury of a little more space.
A 5 1/2 hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur was tiresome but not the end of the world.

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the day in the wet season is like being thrown into a maelstrom of rain and car horns and motorbikes. It's a jaw dropping experience to travel through the streets in a taxi surrounded by hundreds of motorcycles, all traveling seemingly in different directions with no actual rules as to who gives way to whom. If we thought the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe was madness, this is a whole new level.

Because of the heavy rain, all the motorcyclist were wearing ponchos in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns. Sometimes there were two people under the poncho, one driving and the other just sheltering, blindly oblivious to the chaos around them. We even saw the a pretty little pink sandalled foot poking out the side of one poncho, evidence of the toddler wedged between mum & dad on the bike.

We stayed at the Paradise Saigon in downtown District 1. Like most hotels in HCMC, it has its own day spa so a massage seemed like a great idea. Half an hour later, lying face down and naked with a complete stranger walking on my back, I wasn't so sure but having survived the hour long pummelling I have to admit I feel fantastic.

Sophie had read great reviews of the Cyclo Resto restaurant so we dodged the traffic, the street vendors and a couple of cat sized rats to find the little alleyway that is the Cyclo's home. There we ate, for $45 AU for the four of us, a 6 course traditional Vietnamese dinner that started with a prawn spring rolls and ended with egg coffee.

Full as googs we braved the traffic again to check out the night markets. I was once caught in a human traffic jam in Times Square on Christmas Eve - that had nothing on this swarming mass of humanity! Crossing the road is a russian roulette of mammoth proportions. You step onto the road, look straight ahead and move with purpose. Mostly the traffic then goes around you. I can't believe I have lived this long without seeing this sight before. It's like another dimension, a world I never knew existed.

I'm so glad we came.

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    Day 2 - Risotto to Lemon Grass
    Ho Chi Minh City is a hot, sticky risotto.
    Our hotel had amazing sound proof windows and despite the never ceasing traffic outside, we slept like babies till about 5am when our body clocks demanded food. This was a great time to be up and about because the heat wasn't too intense.

    A Vietnamese buffet breakfast is an interesting combination of rice, pho and fruit. Concessions to the western tourist trade include bacon and pancakes, making the plate look very interesting. The coffee is thick and intense. We let Taine have two cups and 12 hours later he's still pinging!

    Out on the street by 7.30 we ran the gauntlet of street vendors to check out the food stall end of the Ben Tahn markets. I cannot describe the mixture of morbid fascination and revulsion evoked by the tightly packed bundles of live frogs and crabs systematically being gutted, chopped and filleted in front of us. The gutters ran red with blood as the vendors calmly went about their business, eating their morning pho with one hand while chopping up offal with the other.

    Outside the market, the street paths were alive with people eating breakfast, sleeping on their motorbikes, cooking, playing cards, washing dishes in buckets, smoking, eyeing off pretty girls (a group of boys in school uniform were very excited to see Sophie walk past) and generally going about their daily business.

    By 8.30am it was already unbearably hot. The smog is very thick and breathing is difficult. We'd planned to walk a bit further to the Reunification Palace but I was struggling to get to the end of the street! The humidity was so intense my camera refused to cooperate. We took refuge in the air conditioned Saigon Centre where we drank more coffee and flower tea. The shops there were like shops in any big shopping complex anywhere in the world. It was boring but cool.

    Back through the markets we finally stopped to make a few purchases before heading back to the hotel to have a shower before our transit flight to Hoi an. Visiting HCMC was an unmissable experience but we were all exhausted by our 24 hrs there.

    We'd been warned that domestic flights in Vietnam are sometimes unreliable and often delayed but our trip with Jetstar Pacific went without a hitch. The plane was new and comfortable and the trip to Da Nang a quick 90 minutes. What a contrast it was to walk out of the Da Nang airport and into the waiting vehicle of our Hoi an transport. There even seems to be a respected road management system in Da Nang and although there were still a lot of motorbikes and horn pressing, it was lower key and without the imminent feeling of certain death that had accompanied every minute in HCMC.

    The coastal road to Hoi an is a contrast of cultures and lifestyles. Swanky, exclusive resort complexes populate the beach front, their backs and manicured lawns firmly turned on the shanty like local houses behind them on the roadside. We have no concept of how it is to live at either end of the financial spectrum, so we just drove down the middle with our mouths agape.

    Closer to Hoi an we got a glimpse of rural Vietnam with people in conical hats tending the fields and roaming water buffalo (that Google tells me are only here for the tourist trade). We're staying at Hoi an Rivertown, a new hotel on the river and close to the Old Town. The welcome here was delightful- fresh fruit and nuts and juice drunk through a lemon grass straw. Our room overlooks the river and an interesting motorbike bridge whose slippery, rubber surface already has us jumping up every 5 minutes to check out the latest crash!

    From the balcony we watched the rain sweep in from further up the coast and waited it out by having an excellent dinner in the hotel restaurant. A wander through the night markets and a swim reminded us that we've come here to relax, something we don't do a lot of at home.

    Pictures on my blog at

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    Day 3- It's Raining
    It rained in Hoi an today. Not just a shower or a cloud burst but torrential, tropical, tumultuous rain that fell from the sky in giant, splashing drops (please forgive all the alliteration- the rain was seriously intense!)

    After a truly amazing breakfast we had planned to walk into Hoi an to check out the shopping but because of the rain we relented and took the shuttle. Luckily we also borrowed umbrellas because by the time we reached the first stop the rain had intensified, the road was flooded and the usual dodge the motorbike game had levelled up to become dodge the traffic while wading through ankle deep water!
    The downpour certainly didn't stop the main business of Hoi an which is to sell the tourists lots of things that the tourists didn't previously know they needed. Like plastic ponchos. Out of nowhere appeared an army of poncho sellers- on foot, on push bikes, on motos, out of alley ways. Even once Geoff and Taine had relented and bought one, we were constantly 'encouraged' to upgrade to another colour or better quality. It was pretty funny, especially since the head openings weren't designed for big Kiwi heads and wearing the full length plastic actually turned you into a mobile sauna. At least Geoff had had the sense to wear his jandals, I don't think my new Sketchers will ever dry.

    Our first shop stop was the tailors to get Geoff a suit. 10 minutes of consultation and measuring and a couple of million dong (Viet currency) later and we were assured that the suit will be ready to try on tomorrow. There are literally hundreds of tailors in Hoi an, making any item of clothing you desire.

    We waded our way up and down the streets, bartered for and bought T shirts and jewellery and leather belts, all the while politely shaking our heads at the constant stream of ladies who ask, "Where you going?", "What you looking for?", "What you want to see?"
    Mostly, the street vendors and their lookouts, while insistent are not threatening like some we've encountered in places like New Orleans or Paris. We did end up paying an exorbitant amount for a bag of soggy bananas after I was foolish enough to ask one of the fruit sellers if I could take her photo. Next thing I knew Geoff and I both had fruit poles slung over our shoulders (for the record they are very heavy), the fruit lady had my iPhone in her hand and other sellers were appearing from everywhere to get in the photo and to then be paid 100,000 Dng for the bananas - EACH! Those bananas cost more than our dinner last night. Well played ladies!

    By the time we sloshed home through the puddles, the rain had stopped and we took advantage of the empty pool at the hotel for a swim.
    For dinner we took Trip Advisor's tip and made the short walk to Tam Phuc's where we pigged out on spring rolls, baked chicken in bamboo leaves and other delicacies, accompanied by 2 for the price of 1 cocktails.

    Afterwards we were too full to do anything but sleep.

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    Nice start. I always worry about lots of rain as I need to wear sneakers for stability. Can't seem to find good sneakers that are waterproof and meet my needs. Hope you got some dry weather too!

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    Thanks dgunbug- we did get lots of dry weather. I also need the sneakers for stability and I found the Sketchers coped admirably.
    live42today - I'm jealous of you now. You will love Vietnam!
    We struggled for good wifi the last few days so I've had to wait to post the rest of the trip.
    Here it is :-)

    Day 4
    Little did we know when we set off on our bike tour this morning that we would witness an exorcism and an exhumation!
    The bike tour was organised by the hotel, complimentary for all guests staying more than 3 days. Our lovely guide Nih led us across the footbridge to the island of Cam Kim, home to about 5000 villagers. The footbridge has only been in existence for a few months; before this the villagers used a ferry to get across to work and shop in Hoi an. We were joined on the tour by four young blokes from Sydney, so we made quite a procession with Taine trying to keep pace with the boys up the front and me wobbling along at the back. I was relatively proud that I managed to stay upright the whole way and didn't get off to walk at all, although the narrow pathways along side the river were a little hairy and I kept expecting to get cleaned up by a moto every time we came to a cross road.

    Once across the bridge we were in rural Vietnam- rice paddies and market gardens. We stopped at the boat builders and the carvers to see their craftmanship. The carvers reminded me of Te Puia in Rotorua, a carving school where the master carver was teaching the next generation the skills required to turn wood into works of art. The master told us it is becoming increasingly difficult to find boys who have the patience and persistence to learn; they would rather cross the river to work in hospitality. I guess the issue of 'grit' in young people is a global one.

    For morning tea we stopped at the local market, a very casual collection of tables covered in raw meat, trays of fish and vegetables ready for the local trade. We were given rice flour and tumeric pancakes which we wrapped in rice paper and dipped in peanut sauce, all washed down with raw sugar cane juice.

    The next stop was at the noodle makers and that was where the totally unexpected occurred. The husband of the noodle maker was described as the man who 'looks after the dead people'. Nih explained that according to the local religion, dead people are allowed to return to their houses for one hour on the anniversary of their passing. Because the afterlife is a boring and lonely place, the family prepare gifts for their departed loved one and it is these gifts that the man makes. They are large cardboard reproductions of things the dead person might like to take with them, like toys or clothes or, for young single men, a girlfriend or an iPhone. The family buy these gifts from the gift maker, display them in their home on the anniversary of the death and then, when the hour is up, they burn them!

    We were fascinated by this most unusual occupation but our attention was a bit distracted because in the room beside us there was a clearly distressed little girl and a man who appeared to be yelling at her. Nih explained that the girl had been showing signs of being 'possessed' and a fortune teller had been bought in to see what the issue was. He had decided that there was an unsettled spirit in the kitchen and so while he exorcised the demon from the little girl in the lounge room, the grandfather was in the kitchen digging up the floor to look for bodies! Given the war torn history of the region there are makeshift graves all over the place and the fortune teller is in high demand to make sure houses are not built over the to of them. We were very worried that we were intruding on what was clearly a family trauma but the grandmother assured us it was ok and went on with her noodle making demonstration. To add just one more bizarre element, our friends from Sydney had a bit of a holiday dare going to see how many gross things they could eat, so Nih rustled up some sauce that had been fermenting with dead fish for 3 months and they dipped their noodles in that. As they were throwing up, a man came from the kitchen to whisper that the body had been found. It was a good time for us to hop back on our bikes and head home.

    A delicious lunch of local beer and spring rolls by the pool helped us recuperate enough to head into town to check on the progress of our tailors. Whereas yesterday was hot and rainy, today was just hot. Mad hot. Geoff struggled to try on his suit and I actually had sweat dripping off my nose faster than I could catch it. The local people seemed totally unfazed by it and in fact many of them were wearing hoodies and jeans. Sophie picked up a playsuit she'd had made from a photo and we were so impressed with how well it was made that we all ended up with tape measures wrapped around our different bits. Who knows what we've actually ordered in our befuddled heat haze.

    I guess we'll find out when we go back tomorrow.

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    Day 5

    It's actually hard to believe how much food we've eaten today!

    We started early, at 6.30, with the breakfast buffet. The chef here does the best eggs benedict- so far our only concession to western food - and then there's the dumplings, the noodles and the fruit and Vietnamese yoghurt and today Geoff even tried the congee, a rice dish that our waitress told us is sure to fix any health problems that you have. There's so much to choose from that we have to have a game plan before we go down each morning!

    At 8.15 we were picked up for our cooking tour. We sat on a corner at the market waiting for our guide and watched all the stall holders managing their day. The traffic intersections in Hoi an are amazing. There are no lights and no rules. Everyone beeps their horn as they approach the intersection and then they just weave seamlessly, like a choreographed dance, from one side to another. Although we've seen a few people fall off their bikes on the bridge, we've seen no crashes in the town, no road rage and remarkably, no squished pedestrians.

    Our guide, another delightful girl called Nhi, took us to the market to buy the ingredients for our lunch. We all donned traditional cone hats and as we moved from stall to stall she gave us a lesson on Vietnamese ingredients. I struggled to concentrate because I was too busy counting the diseases we could get from the unrefrigerated meat (it was already 32C), the flies gathering in the shrimp bowls and the salad being washed in river water. Geoff was more gung ho, happy to be getting his money's worth from the horrendously expensive typhoid and hepatitis shots but I've already counted the lack of public toilets in Hoi an and we still have 5 days to go! In any event I needn't have stressed because the shopping trip was a bit of a sham. The baskets were left at the market and the food we cooked came directly from a pristinely clean fridge tucked away behind a screen at the cooking school.

    With our shopping lesson completed we hopped on a boat for a trip down the river. At the sea mouth we transferred to some traditional bowl boats to travel through the coconut groves to the cooking school.
    There, our chef, Mr Happy, showed us how to make four traditional Vietnamese dishes; Goi Cuon (spring rolls), Banh Xeo (crepes) with Nuoc Leo dipping sauce, Sea food fried noodles and Grilled pork with noodles. And then we ate, and ate, and ate. All of this was washed down with endless glasses of passionfruit juice. Passionfruit is about $1 per kilo, so it is served with everything.

    After the banquet we tried our hand at traditional fishing, in this case, hand lines thrown into a very small and enclosed pond of pretty tame fish. Everyone caught one and then we threw them back.

    By the time we bussed back to our hotel we were full of food and exhausted from the heat so we had a nanna nap and caught up on the disappointing news from home that the Nth Warrnambool Eagles had lost the Grand Final.

    It was beyond us to imagine walking into town for our tailor's fittings so we lashed out and caught a taxi. Thankfully it was Sophie's shout because it cost $24 000 dong - about $1.40!

    After a few days here I'm still lost but the others seem to be able to navigate from one seemingly identical street to the next so we were able to get from the Peace Tailor's to Little Angel fairly efficiently. We also found some free wifi to tap into so we could follow the last exciting quarter of the AFL Preliminary Final - Go Doggies! Hoi an is a labyrinth of streets and alleys all brimming with little shops and while we were looking for our planned dinner stop, we found a whole new part of the Old Town that we hadn't seen before. We crossed the Japanese covered bridge into a much more upmarket part of the city. The 'real' shops here sold exactly the same items as the ones that come out of cardboard boxes in the market but with higher price tags and less ambience, so we bought nothing.

    As the night falls, the whole of Hoi an transforms into a party atmosphere with colourful lanterns swinging from the shops and the trees and families lining the riverbanks eating street food on plastic chairs and tables. The boats on the river are also lit by lanterns to create fairytale scene of light, accentuated by the tinkling sounds of the Vietnamese language.

    Even though we couldn't possibly have been hungry, we stopped at the Citronella to rest our feet and drink beer. And because we were there we ate dinner as well, (what's a few more calories?). It was a bit disappointing because the menu was clearly 'dumbed down' to cater for western taste buds. It was all a bit bland and uninteresting - but we ate it anyway.

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    Day 6

    Shop till you drop

    Today's title is frighteningly accurate. Truth be told I only just made it back to the hotel today. Saved by a $3 taxi ride, a swim and three bottles of Saigon Red, I think I might survive but I was definitely on Struggle St there for awhile this afternoon.

    This morning, after a less substantial than usual breakfast because our tummies are struggling from yesterday's over indulgence, we took the hotel shuttle out to An Bang Beach. I'm not a great beach person but it was nice enough lying on the sun lounge for a couple of hours. Like most things in Hoi an, the lounges are allocated according to hotel and 'connections '. I don't know what happens if you just rock up and sit on the wrong chair but we were happy in the cream lounge section under a couple of substantial beach umbrellas. It wasn't Mount Maunganui but it wasn't Warrnie with a southerly blowing either and the water was as warm as a tepid bath.

    The ever present souvenir sellers were as abundant on the beach as they are in the town and so, of course I ended up with some balancing dragon flies and a new fan. What else can you say to a polite 30 yr old peddling her wares on a hot, sandy beach with a toddler in tow, except 'How much? Sure, I'll have 5." I haven't had time to study the social welfare situation here in too much depth but there doesn't seem to be as many people living on welfare or on the streets in Vietnam as we've noticed in other countries, including our own. Everyone just works really, really hard and ekes a living in anyway they can.

    Although we've been encouraged to enter many shops, no one has begged us for food or money without offering something in return. Haggling is a bit of a game in Hoi an but at the end of the day I pay whatever they're asking because it just seems fair and reasonable.

    It's so hot in the middle of the day that a siesta is almost mandatory and so we took one before heading back into Hoi an for our daily clothes' fittings. First stop was the Little Angel where we picked up Taine's jacket, my pants and skirts and Sophie's dress. Geoff liked his shorts so much he decided to order another couple of pairs, so I guess we'll be seeing the Angel girls again tomorrow! Having skipped lunch we decided to stop at a place on Le Loi St for an iced coffee and some carb loading. It was a foolish mistake to fall for the allure of carrot cake and french fries. Western food is not only expensive here, its also very bland but it was nice to sit for a bit.

    Back on the street we ventured to the Friendly Shoe Shop to have some custom leather shoes made. Soft leather for my arthritic toe, strong leather for Geoff's new boots and a long discussion about the length and cut and heel size of Sophie's boots. None for Taine because his feet grow too fast to warrant the measuring!

    In Hoi an the shop holders remember you - every time. Shop 'loyalty' is everything and they love to see you back in the market, always honouring the deal you made the day before if you want to buy something else. So when Taine decided he needed yet another 'genuine' adidas t shirt, we had to walk all the way to the other end of the town to our 'regular' t shirt seller. She was very happy to see us and her aunty, who just happened to be visiting, took a shine to Sophie's blue eyes and black hair (a much sought after but never achieved combo in Vietnam). I'm not sure why but we found ourselves following the aunty back to her house to meet her sisters, an accomplished pair of masseurs who, faster than you could blink, had me sitting in a chair massaging my shoulders and suggesting some eye brow threading. This is the way transactions are conducted in Hoi an and while the idea of a massage was appealing, the threading was not so we agreed (by pinky promise) to go back tomorrow for the massage if only she would let go my arm and let us go home tonight!

    I've been wanting to visit some of the historic buildings in Old Town since we got here but by the time we walked back to that area we discovered that Soph had left the tickets at the hotel. There was nothing for it but to stagger back to the main road to look for a taxi; there was no way I could walk all the way back to the river tonight. Heat, dehydration and over spending finally had finally taken its toll and I was almost delirious.

    The plan was to shower, swim and then ride back into town for dinner. We only got as far as the shower and swim and then we were so well looked after by the hotel staff that we just kept ordering beers and pool side food till it was time for bed.

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    Day 7
    Before we came to Hoi An I watched some Youtube vlogs of other people's visits and wondered how they could have spent so much time aimlessly wandering up and down what looked like the same streets for hours on end. And yet, we've done just that for 5 days and tomorrow when we leave we will be very sad. Every time you go into the Ancient Town you see something new. And in our case, every time you walk down one of those streets you buy something new. It took me a couple of days to warm to the whole custom tailoring thing- I'm more of a ready made, Target type of girl- but my suitcase now contains 2 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, a dress, a leather belt and a pair of shoes, all designed to fit no one else but me. Geoff has a suit, a shirt, 4 pairs of shorts and some magnificent boots and even Taine has a new jacket. As for Sophie... her last purchase was a leather jacket that she was measured for at 1pm and we picked up at 7 tonight! The pleasure of owning clothes that fit perfectly is quite addictive.

    This morning was our first 'sleep in'. We're adapting to the 3 hr time difference just in time to go home. Geoff and I had a very leisurely breakfast while Soph went to the gym and Taine continued to sleep and then we went into town. It's possible to get into the Ancient Town section of the city without paying the requested fee but the ticket sales go towards the upkeep of the temples and Old Houses, so we willingly paid for ours and today we used a couple of the attached passes to look inside the various temples and shrines dotted along the streets. In one, a lovely Chinese gentleman was transcribing the writing at the shrine and he explained that it had been built in memory of hundreds of Chinese Vietnamese traders who, in the 1500s, had been killed by the government when they were on a trading mission to Hoi An. This temple remembers them but also keeps their families safe on future trips. Kids in my English class know that I like to make connections between experiences to make sense of them and this story was so like many we heard in Europe - as the locals love to say here, " Same, same but different."

    In between shoe fittings we bought some completely useless souvenirs and had iced coffee and Banh Mi at a cafe. Like so many of the eateries in Hoi An, the front looked like a cafe but it was really a family residence. The food is prepared in the family kitchen and the 'restroom' is the family toilet and shower. I had to wait for one of the kids to finish brushing their teeth so I could wash my hands.

    In Australia we'd call it the bush telegraph, in Vietnam I think it's done by text but next minute who should show up at our table but the lovely Kim, the lady I pinky promised I'd have a massage with today. Her sister was worried we'd reneged on the deal but we assured her we were just cooling down before we came to see her. Turns out the cafe is run by Kim's daughter in law, which is a very lucky coincidence because otherwise we might have got lost and missed our 'appointment'.

    Down an alley in the market we found Kim's sisters, ready to shave our legs, thread our eyebrows, pierce our ears... pretty much any beauty treatment you can think of, all dispensed from a tray of potions on a shelf above the plastic table cloth coated massage table. We insisted that no, we'd agreed to just a neck and shoulder massage for 100 dong for me and a foot massage for Soph. Kim whisked Geoff off down the street to look at her souvenir shop and just for a milli second I became a bit anxious that I was never going to see him again and that I was going to get the 'works' despite my protestations but thankfully Sophie's assertiveness won out and I was able to enjoy what was actually a fantastic neck rub. Turns out the sisters work together to run both the beauty business and the souvenir stall. They take it in turns to work in each space and to tout for business in the market, rounding up customers like us with their own special charm. By the time the Tiger Balm was cooling, we were old friends and Kim's sister even did something clever with my hair that stopped the sweat from pooling behind my ears for 3 or 4 seconds.

    The tailors where Sophie got her jacket made is also a family business. The oldest sister is the manager and the 3 younger sisters, her assistants. They design the clothes and measure the customers and deliver the orders to their dad's factory where the seamstresses work in shifts, around the clock to make the clothes in super fast, same day time for the tourists. All of them have been to university for 4 years, where they studied English and Design and Dressmaking. They work 12 hours every day, with the younger girls having 2 days off a month and the manager just 3 days off a year during the Vietnamese New Year celebration. She told us they are hoping the government will mandate a 7pm closing time in Hoi An so that the shop keepers can spend more time with their children, but she's not holding out any great hope.

    Sophie's been hanging out to try the local street food by the river. The thought of all that unrefrigerated meat was too much for me but she assures me it was delish and at 25 000 dong ( about $1.35 AU), very reasonably priced! I have lots of Gastro Stop in my bag if it doesn't work out well for her.
    On the way home tonight we met our first antsy taxi driver. We've been here 5 days so we're well aware of the route and the cost back to our hotel. Everyone here has been so helpful and trustworthy (people chase you down the street if you leave anything behind in their shops), so it came as quite a shock when half way home he suggested an agreed price of double what it should be. When we made it clear we knew what the price should be he suddenly turned in Mario Andretti and started playing dodgems with the oncoming traffic.

    It's the only negative business transaction we've had in Hoi An.

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    So, we're back in Ho Chi Minh, and while it's great to still be on holidays, no one is happy about leaving Hoi An. I've never shed tears leaving a hotel before but when the staff from the Rivertown all lined up to have their photo taken with us and then made heart shapes with their hands as our taxi drove away... well, it was like a scene from a 4 star Netflix movie and I wasn't the only one wiping more than sweat from my eyes..

    I'm afraid that it doesn't matter where we might stay in the future, nothing will ever match up to the service we had at the Rivertown. We were cared for like treasured guests of the family from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. Nothing was too much trouble and within a day of being there, everyone, from the concierge to the breakfast waitresses knew our names and our preferences, especially the front desk 'talent' Nhi, whose friendly conversations taught us so much about the Vietnamese culture and the country.

    The staff at the Rivertown were very representative of the Vietnamese people- same, same as us but different. Different in their contentment with life and their constant positivity. Same but different in their commitment to family. I asked Nhi what happens to people when they get too old to work and she looked a bit confused. Their children look after them of course, especially the youngest son of the family, to whom falls the inheritance of the house but also the responsibility of the ageing parents (I made sure Taine was listening to this bit!). If the parents don't have children then their nephews or nieces will take over and all children put part of their wage aside each week to fund the eventual retirement of their parents or childless aunts and uncles. It's not uncommon, as in Nhi's case, for four generations of family to be living together in one house. It was lucky she said, that she gets on well with her three sisters in law. It's not that capitalism is absent in this communist country but the focus is different. It seems people just want to be happy and have enough, there is no real desire to be rich or to have more than you need.

    We took our capitalist selves back into Hoi An this morning to pick up Sophie's boots. They still weren't completely right so the shop owner at the Friendly Shoe Shop said she would ship them to Ho Chi Minh tomorrow and Sophie can pay her by Paypal later if she's happy with them. Maybe add completely trusting to the differences between us.

    Shopping out of the way we spent our last hour in Old Town watching a traditional theatre performance. It was all in Vietnamese but good theatre needs no translation and we really enjoyed the dance interpretation of the Old Man and the Fisherwomen. Soph even won a prize in the traditional bingo game.

    Our flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh was on time and fantastically, half full, so we got an entire row each to ourselves. Kind of like a poor man's version of business class. It was a shame it's such a short distance.

    An almighty thunderstorm hit just as we were leaving the airport, turning the 8km journey into a 90 minute tussle with the traffic and the rain. It was peak hour for the motor cyclists again and you certainly have to admire their tenacity. I was freaked out by the thunder and pelting rain and I was inside a taxi. Like a Formula 1 pitstop, these guys just pull into the kerb, grab their rain ponchos from under the seat and pull out, seamlessly back into the traffic.

    We were pleased to finally reach our hotel in one piece but its a terrible let down after Rivertown. The Sunland is an ageing hippy of a hotel, complete with the most dreadful decor you've ever seen. There's a roof top bar (which was flooded) and a tiny bath tub of a pool (out of action due to the lightning). We ate at the restaurant which is clearly targeted at British tourists. We chose from the only page of asian dishes available and everything tasted like the buffet at Gateway Plaza.

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    On our last full day in Vietnam, we got lost.

    We were up early for a less than satisfying breakfast before we got on board our mini bus tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is about 70km from the city (2 hours in the traffic) and there are a number of ways you can get there, ranging from public buses to private cars to speed boats. We went with the mid price option of a 12 seater with a guide. The brochure said our guide would be English speaking but this was a bit of an exaggeration. The words Mr Vanz was speaking were definitely in English but with very few consonants and no pauses between them so we couldn't understand a word he said. This was a shame because he talked all the way to Cu Chi so I'm sure what he was saying would have been interesting.

    On the way we made a pitstop on the side of the road to check out a road side market stall. It took a few minutes to register that they were selling live river rats, snakes and lop eared rabbits. The lack of refrigerated storage means its more sensible to sell the meat 'fresh'.

    The Cu Chi Tunnels were built during the Vietnamese war to help the villagers and local guerrilla fighters hide from the US soldiers. They're a network of over 250km of very narrow, underground tubes connected like spider webs to bigger, communal areas providing space for cooking and arms storage. Amidst the maze were decoy tunnels and booby traps designed to outwit the enemy. The tunnels are just another example of the resilience of the Vietnamese people and the way that they just 'get on' with life, despite whatever hardships are facing them. Because they could no longer live above the ground, they went below. They even managed sneak out of the tunnels at night to harvest their crops.

    Cu Chi has become a famous tourist attraction so there are thousands of people crowding through the area every day. There are 'workshops' making rubber sandals and rice paper and a shooting range where you can fire off an M16. The area is dotted with mannequins of Viet Cong soldiers and you can buy faux soldier uniforms and aeroplanes made out of beer cans. Because of all this commercialism the site has a bit of a theme park feel to it and so its hard to appreciate that this was actually a war zone, a grave yard, a place where terrible atrocities occurred and many people lost their lives.

    At one stage you can climb down into one of the original tunnels and walk/crawl for about 20 metres to the exit. This, at least, gives you an idea of the conditions the Cu Chi people lived in. I bonked my head at least 10 times in the 20 metres and in the middle where it was really dark there was a rising sense of panic until you could see the exit shaft. If you're in HCMC then the tunnels are an historical site worth seeing but you wouldn't come back for a second visit.

    On the way back we made another stop at a friend of Mr Vanz so we could buy some Pho (soup) for lunch. At 25000 Dong this was a real bargain, especially if you overlooked the cleanliness or lack thereof , the chickens walking through the restaurant and the squat toilet, sans paper. Cynically, I wonder if some of these tour stops are rigged to be especially colloquial for the tourists (like the faux market shopping we did for our cooking tour in Hoi An) but if it leaves you feeling that you've had a unique Vietnamese experience then I guess it's served its purpose and the family who own the shop have made a few dong.

    We got the bus to drop us off at the War Remnants Museum. This is a seriously daunting place. There is nothing done to hide the horror of the Vietnam War here. The pictures and descriptions of the atrocities suffered by the Vietnamese people are explicit, from the French prisons, to the US bombings and torture of Viet Cong sympathisers and the effects of Agent Orange. It's completely overwhelming. We've had a few people tell us that the museum is anti American. I'm not sure it can be anything else. There was no act of aggression fromVietnam that started the war and the devastation caused by the US and their allies is still having an effect here. Any other explanation would be a very inconvenient truth. I felt a great deal of shame and anger that 'my' people could have been involved in such horror and it gave us cause to reflect on the meaning of the word terrorism.

    When the galleries got too much for us we retreated to the coffee shop outside and that's when the evening deluge began. We thought we'd be able to wait it out but the museum closed at 5 so we sent Sophie out into the street to purchase us some ponchos (which took about 30 secs because a poncho seller magically appeared as she approached the street) and set off in the pouring rain to walk home via the markets. Somewhere between dodging the motorcycles on the footpath, the thundering rain and the holes in the pavement, we took a wrong turn and got lost. I'm really not sure how we didn't die because crossing roads in Ho Chi Minh is dangerous enough at the best of times, let alone in pelting rain, after dark. In true Amazing Race style, Sophie kept finding friendly locals to ask directions. Unfortunately many of these were conflicting, but eventually we found ourselves outside the Ben Tanh markets - that were just closing for the day!

    Luckily the street food market was still open so we all chose something to share for our last dinner in Vietnam. It shows how far our taste buds have grown that even Taine chose local food and we ended up with a smorgasboard of dumplings, rice pancakes, spring rolls and chilli sauce.

    The last few kilometres back to the hotel would have been smooth sailing if we hadn't had to travel through the riverside neighborhood. Maybe the rain and the 12 kilometres previously walked made us a bit complacent but we didn't really notice the changing 'vibe' until two guys on a motorbike mounted the sidewalk and tried to grab Sophie's purse. It was lucky that it was her vice like grip and fast reflexes, not mine, otherwise we would have ended the evening on a very sour note. As it was we were just cross she hadn't had the presence of mind to karate kick him off the bike.

    Tomorrow we head back to Australia. This little snippet of Vietnam has been amazing. I have no doubt we'll be back.

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    What a great report. I loved reading about all the interesting experiences you had - the markets, food, shopping, massages, etc. Sounds like you really made the most of your short time in Vietnam. We also loved our time there and would love to return be day. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

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    I remember the
    poncho vendors instantly appearing every time it rained from my trip in 2004. I still have and use the heavy duty poncho I bought then. I'll be back next Feb. and will probably buy another since they are still being sold everywhere so I won't pack and bring one.

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    Yes Percy. As an ally of the US, our government at the time supported the Amercian effort. It was an extremely unpopular decision, so good ole govt reintroduced conscription to force enough able bodied men to join the army. About 60,000 troops were sent to Vietnam.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your report Kwaussie.

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    Thanks all for your lovely feedback.

    Yes Percy, unfortunately Australia was involved in Vietnam. As a child I witnessed the rallies against it but I never really understood the horror of it until this trip.

    I hope all of you who are traveling to Vietnam enjoy your trip as much as we did.

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