Archive for the ‘viet nam’ Category

and the winners are…

February 7, 2010

Last night we checked in to our 100th hotel. In celebration of this milestone, we reviewed our list of accommodation and decided to let you in on some of the best and worst moments. Note to our mums – I’ll give you the nod when it’s time for you to leave.

The good:*

Friendliest welcome – Tony’s Guesthouse, Melaka & North West Guesthouse, Mae Sariang
Tony – what a legend. The man is a kindred Little Creatures lover – need we say more? After tiring of “always screwing the union” as a government employee, his life now revolves around cooking the perfect eggs for his guests and fishing.

We only meant to spend a day or two in Mae Sariang, but a week later we were still lounging on the verandah at North West. We had no need that Tukta and Kitti couldn’t cater to – they let us take our own beers from the fridge; lent us their bikes and knew the best lady-boy in town to go to for a haircut.

Country with highest accommodation standards – Vietnam
Despite the fact that we encountered two of our most horrific hotels in Vietnam (see below), the general standard was very high. There doesn’t seem to be much of a culture of ultra-cheap dorm beds and shared bathrooms, but when $10 buys you a spotless fan room with TV, attached bathroom and hot water, who cares?

Best on ground – Zhilam Hostel, Kangding
We’ve already sung the praises of this place, but it deserves another shout-out. Dare I say it, Kris could charge double for this place and it would still be good value. Endless hot water in pristine bathrooms; crisp linen, and Kris and Lillian seemed to know exactly the right moment to ask you if you wanted a cup of tea. Worthy candidate in the “friendliest welcome” category, but we had to share the glory around a little.

OK, so I’ll quickly move on to the nasty bits because we all know they are far more interesting. Mums: leave now.

The bad:

Worst value for money – Prince of Wales Hotel, Singapore
How on earth did we land ourselves in a hostel above an Australian-themed backpackers pub? Our first stop on the trip, I can only think we were blinded by the excitement of it all. Apart from being full of shocking bogans, the wailing of dreadful covers bands blared from the bar downstairs until 3am every night and all the advertised “perks” turned out to be not nearly as appealing as advertised. “Free breakfast” = a few loaves of stale sliced bread, Nescafe and eggs you cook for yourself in a greasy pan, the stocks of which stop being replenished about 30 minutes before the ridiculously early cut-off time of 9am – so, if you’re us, you end up with cold coffee dregs and a dry crust for breakfast. “Air con” = will be switched on at 10pm and turned off at 6am. Even at $60 for a spartan private room, you still have to share a bathroom with the room next door and from the $20 dorm beds, you have to schlepp downstairs to use the toilets in the pub. Boo.

Biggest disappointment – Ko Tarutao
One thing we noticed consistently throughout SE Asia is a lack of concern for upkeep. New places go up and then are left to decay, quickly, as one might expect in a tropical climate, without a sniff of fresh paint or basic maintenance until they reach the point of no-return, when they are torn down and rebuilt again. Being government-run, there was a small army of staff employed on the island, but it was as though highly specific jobs (I mean highly specific, like “sweep this one square metre of concrete”) were allocated on Day One and that file was then hastily closed with a sigh of relief, never to be reopened. Broken windows, burnt-out light globes and wonky doors abounded and despite being promoted as an eco-resort, there was rubbish everywhere – but it was nobody’s job to fix it, so it never happened.

Bed bugs – Greens Hotel, Jerantut & Welcome Hotel, Bombay
Conveniently for Linds, both incidents occurred when we were sleeping in separate beds. My bout in Bombay prompted a response of “Oh my God” from the guy on the reception desk.

Weirdest – Lete Hostel, Xining
Where else but China would it be perfectly acceptable to rent out the top two floors of a high-rise apartment building to a youth hostel? An eerily deserted rabbit warren of rooms, with staff who looked at you as though you had two heads. And I’m pretty sure they used a damp mop to clean the carpets.

Most dangerous – Can’t remember the name, Xiahe
Apart from nearly dying from exposure during the night, going to the toilet involved taking your life in your own hands. Guests are required to take the most circuitous route around the outer perimeter of the courtyard to avoid a savage dog, whose chain is just a mite shorter than what he needs to reach you and sink his teeth into your leg. I knew he was there, but I was still half scared to death every time he barked – not really what you need as you’re scurrying towards the fetid loo, bladder bursting from already having delayed the trip for as long as humanly possible.

The ugly:

No categories here – there is one undisputed winner of this dubious honour:

Trade Union Hotel, Ben Tre
This place had the vibe of a private enterprise which had been taken over by the Communists at the end of the war… and never cleaned since. Cigarette butts in the shower drain, highly suspicious wall stains and a roach graveyard under the bed. It was after staying here that “presence of a toilet seat” became a mandatory item on our room inspection checklist.

Notable mention must be made of the place we stayed in Vinh Long, also in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. I was suffering a nasty head cold at the time and couldn’t face venturing outside our otherwise passable room, so Linds waited until after we left to tell me that there were soiled prophylactics down the side of the bed.

* excluding statistical outliers – namely, posh hotels funded by other people’s generosity


there’s something about us and islands

September 16, 2009
Continuing our tour of places beginning with the letter “H”, we headed to beautiful Halong Bay. Having taken some advice from the ever wise Ryan & Jo, whose experiences before us we tend to sponge off to make our own lives easier, and the occasionally wise Thorntree, we decided to go it on our own rather than sign on to what was inevitably going to be a disappointing budget tour from Hanoi.
Two buses, a boat and another bus found us at Cat Ba Island and a day tour of the bay the next day allowed us plenty of time for swimming, eating squid, splashing about in kayaks and exploring fluorescently lit caves. The next few days saw us rained in, Phu Quoc-stylie, but that allowed us plenty of time for watching the US Open and straight-to-video Save the Last Dance 2 and sinking decidedly average Dalat red with a Cuban-Scot lass named Lindsay, some cool Israelis and an Irish nutritionist who was genuinely concerned about Linds’ dramatic weight loss (this is starting to sound like the opening line of a politically incorrect joke). His explanation that he was a “fat bastard” before we left home didn’t really cut it and resulted in us both receiving a lecture about the value of multivitamins and rehydrating solutions. More wine, I say.
Travel upon numerous land and sea vessels back to the mainland left us homeless for the day in Hanoi while we waited for our night train to Sapa. Pastries and a gaggle of conscientous and adorable uni students wanting to practice their English kept us well entertained for the afternoon. Any conversation with non-Australians invariably drifts to kangaroos and we take cruel delight in the looks of horror on people’s faces when we explain that they are indeed very delicious.
I had felt mildly annoyed by my lack of resistance to the sales push for a fancy and more expensive soft sleeper berth on the night train but thankfully, this evaporated the minute we laid eyes on the plush (by our standards, at least) carriage. And thus began our hopeless and continuing addiction to the Israeli card game, Yaniv, peddled to us by our delightful and irrepressible cabin mates, Michaella and Nihv, who lured us in with offers of cocktail nuts.
Sapa is a former hill station nestled in the Tonkinese Alps and like true colonials, we’ve revelled in playing cards on the balcony in the sun and sleeping under a doona for the first time in months. A necessary period of convalescence has kept us from hiking beyond the door to the patisserie but we might go check out a waterfall thingy tomorrow, conveniently located on the same road as the patisserie and it’s foggy and piddling with rain today so it’s pastry o’clock.

tropical beer notes #15

September 16, 2009

Bia Ha Noi 5% Vietnam

Unlike Saigon, there is only one choice in Hanoi. Bia Ha Noi it is, and it’s not a bad cleanser either. It makes sense; things are more austere and well grumpy here in the north. I can see them thinking “we don’t need all this endless choice – those pesky capitalist southerners and their market economy…” Probably not such a bad decision, given that it all pretty much tastes the same anyway.

When I took the above pic at a little noodle joint in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the cook insisted I took a picture of the chicken butts next to me. Much hilarity ensued. Props to you, chicken butt dude.


the great asian shirt drought

September 15, 2009
It’s time for a rant. I’ve had one brewing for a while now. At first, my ire was directed towards WordPress and its formatting idiosyncracies. I even went so far to draft an angry post about it but, thankfully for you, I lost it in cyberspace. However, a bigger issue has been making my blood boil throughout this trip and it’s high time I got it off my (shirt-clad) chest. This rant has the added bonus of making me feel especially righteous. And it’s far more satisfying bitching about real people than about a computer program.
It’s other travellers. Not all, not even most, but a highly noticeable minority. The sort that quibble over paying 18,000 dong for a beer in a restaurant when they paid 12,000 for one at a shop (a difference of about 35 cents) and then happily go and blow five times that amount on a crappy Zinger burger at KFC. Or those who are continuously wanting to know if they can have their noodles with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, when it’s clear that all the noodles come out of one pot that has chicken bits bobbing about in it, all the while barking their demand at the vendor in English when it’s clear that the vendor doesn’t speak a word.
But those who get my goat most of all appear to be victims of a strange phenomenon known as “the Great Asian Shirt Drought.”* Would you walk down the high street of whatever godforsaken coal-mining backwater that you’re from without a shirt on? No. Would you even wait for a bus on the side of a highway or dine in a restaurant in the aforementioned backwater without a shirt on, exposing your flabby gut and bogan tattoos to all and sundry? No. Then why is it suddenly appropriate to do all of these things and more without a shirt on as soon as you touch down in SE Asia?
Clearly, there is some sort of acute shirt shortage! Somebody call the UN! Tell them to send urgent shirt aid!
*Nobody but Linds and me actually recognises this phenomenon. Yet. I’m hoping it will catch on.

tropical beer notes # 14

September 12, 2009

bia hoi (draft beer) Vietnam ?%

This has to be the cheapest beer in the world: 3000 dong for a glass, that’s about 19 cents. You can drink it there or take it away – BYO vessel Hungarian vino style (or Toga 1999….).  It’s all no name brand and sold in grubby proletarian store fronts. That said, I don’t really get how they can make any dong out of it, despite my best efforts to drive them into profitability.

It’s super light, even for a Vietnamese beer. Sometimes a bit sour and tart, although I suspect that has more to do with what’s left in the glass overnight.

Best appreciated perched on a kindy-sized plastic stool* with a side order of air dried squid and moto fumes.

*The keg ladies often give me a small stack of stools for a bit more structural integrity, lest I squash them like beer can. Actually when I’m sitting in these places I look a bit like the drummer in that Supergrass clip.

on the move in vietnam

September 7, 2009

After spending a fair bit of languid time waiting around for things in places we’d already been, it was time to get a wriggle on and get some serious Vietnamese kilometres under our belt.

A few days back in Phnom Penh saw us collect our visas, both Vietnamese and Chinese, and head on our merry way. The visa application process, or lack thereof, perfectly embodies how things “work” in Cambodia. No forms; no details; no signature – just pay the fee to the right person (in this case, chihuahua-lover and hands-down winner of the Asia’s Most Efficient Man Award, Sem, at Exotissimo Travel) and it somehow magically happens. The other way things work is that people are incredibly kind, from the four generations of family that lived in the lobby of our hotel to the delightful Veary, who kept us well fed and watered at Aw’-Kun.


A few more days back in Saigon saw us welcome newly-arrived expat and “Business Development Manager”, James Kirton. After sending him to work hungover a few times and bestowing upon him our limited culinary expertise on the city, it was time to move on again and revisit that which we swore we’d never do again: the long-haul sleeper bus. Thankfully, it was “only” 23 hours this time and catching a magnificent blood-red sunrise over verdant rice paddies almost made it worth the trauma. Dodd decided to put the rest of the time to good use and listen to Captain Beefheart on a continuous loop.  Bat Chain Puller. Puller, puller.



Hoi An, where the livin’ is easy. To cope with the Luciferian heat, we decided it was only prudent to adopt a Spanish lifestyle – wake on the later side of early; stagger around in the heat until midday; snooze away the afternoon and rouse ourselves in the evening for cocktail hour. Our last couple of days saw us enjoy what has been our first and will likely be our last bit of beach for quite some time, and it was glorious. Deckchair, swim. Deckchair, swim. Repeat. Sorry Kizza and Janeo. At the risk of copping huge amounts of abuse from our gainfully employed readers, and perfectly timed to coincide with my own decision to resign from work, I’ll mention that the most taxing task of those couple of days was deciding whether or not to order a second serving of crunchy squid from the friendly beachside seafood vendors.


Hue: We felt we had a bit of unfinished business in Hue, it having been our first stop in Vietnam many weeks ago and the embarkation point of the original bus ride from hell. Imperial history, more blazing heat, more bikes. Cue lots of raised eyebrows and chuckling at the outlandish antics of two Hue personalities: the lady touts on motorbikes who see fit to slowly putt alongside of you while you’re wheezing your way up a hill on a bike with no gears; and the pint-sized Emperor Tu Duc, who was taller than some things, including chairs and women on their sides, and who pre-emptively ordered the execution of all 200 workers involved in his burial so as to forever conceal the location of his tomb.

The 13-hour train journey to Hanoi was a walk in the park, albeit a highly populated one, replete with endless people-watching opportunities – communist-clad septuagenarians with wispy beards; young, urbane Mac-toters; and toddlers who wandered the aisles sitting on strangers’ laps and helping themselves to their drinks and snacks. We had been quite proud of our own collection of snacks which included a box of sugar-free digestive biscuits – that was until we noticed the warning that “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” After we’d munched down about 10 each. Woops. Thankfully, that doesn’t fall into the category of excess consumption, but it certainly had us worried for a while.
Hanoi is a city in love with the open flame. Although technically prohibited, the streets are usually filled with smoke of one kind or another – grilling meat; burning rubbish; or ceremonial fires where photocopied US dollars are burned as spiritual offerings (honestly, do they really think the spirits are that gullible?). We found our spiritual home in a four-storey BBQ barn where every kind of goat is ceremonially barbecued and devoured. Call us weak, but we bypassed the goat testicle and goat blood liquor for the more sedate offerings of goat fillet and goat “breast”, or udder. Although we were the only foreigners in the whole barn, we suspect they must have had a few problems with others setting things on fire as we were highly supervised throughout the whole goaty experience. I’ll just say “goat” a few more times for good measure: goat, goat, goat.
After the sweeping boulevards of Saigon, there is a definite charm to the narrow winding streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, which are named according to the goods traditionally sold there – silk street; pickled fish; coffins. It is also a city dominated by the personality cult of Ho Chi Minh and we paid a visit to his mausoleum and the sort of Uncle Ho theme park that surrounds it, which includes a Soviet-funded museum with psychedelic exhibits explaining the factors influencing the rise of communism. Despite the thronging crowds, the mausoleum and surrounding park complex are quite serene. People even manage to queue in an uncharacteristically orderly fashion, such is the power of Uncle Ho (and the bayonet-wielding military guards).
We recently tallied up the number of hostelries we’ve stayed in since we left home – quite a rogue’s gallery of the good, the bad and the ugly. Check out the wild climb to #55, our current digs, which thankfully fall into the “good” category.

July 30, 2009

So many were the witty titles that we came up with for this post that we have foregone one witty title in favour of several witty subtitles.

Artelaris Now

It’s Ho Chi Minh City to the cartographers and communist autocrats, but it’s still Saigon to everyone else. Excited by the arrival of Kizza and Janeo and knowing that we would be easily distracted by fresh beer, French food and pho, we sweated out most of Saigon’s must-sees in the first few days (hangovers not withstanding). Saigon is a mad city, where the two-wheeled population almost equals the two-legged population and crossing the road is an extreme activity in itself. That elusive break in the traffic never comes, so you’ve just got to defy every instinct you have and let that bus honk and swerve around you. Or wait until a granny or mother-and-child crosses the road and shuffle along behind, not at all secure in the knowledge that no one would be callous enough to mow them down.

Obviously, a lot of the sightseeing to be had in Saigon relates to the war. The Reunification Palace is magnificently preserved in all its 70s glory, complete with official presidential gambling rooms, cinema and shooting gallery.

The War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the “American War Crimes Museum”) documents the impact of the war on the Vietnamese people, particularly those described at the time as the North Vietnamese. Unsurprisingly, the collection is not exactly shy in attributing blame to the USA and their southern “puppets”. It also includes an excellent exhibit on press photographers in the conflict. Reading the stories of these men, and a few women, while viewing their photos reminded us just how many iconic photos resulted from the war and what an important role they played  in communicating the horrors of that war to the people at home. It’s sad to think that nearly 40 years later, nothing like this sort of press freedom exists in Iraq, Afghanistan or any theatre where western forces find themselves.

We also spent an afternoon at the Cu Chi tunnels, where communist soldiers endured staggering subterranean hardships just 60 km from Saigon. Now, the site is managed by the military who let tourists experiment with firing automatic weapons. For a fee, of course. Yeah!

We combined our trip to Cu Chi with a stop at the Cao Dai Holy See. The Vietnamese seem to have an appetite for creating extremely ecumenical “fusion” religions with rather curious theology – although with over 2 million followers, they make Jedis look like rank amateurs. Actually, the temple was a mere sideshow to our tour guide “Slim Jim” Thong who was far more interested in showing off his extensive knowledge of Australian rhyming slang than telling us anything about the Cao Dai religion, which is a blend of Buddhism, Catholicism, ancestor worship, Confucianism and Taoism. Its three principal saints are Victor Hugo; Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a Vietnamese poet. Other venerated historical figures include Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson,  Julius Caesar, Shakespeare and William Churchill. Unsurprisingly, all of this results in some fairly psychedelic architecture and colourful ritual.

After all this, we needed some touristic frivolity and heavily chlorinated fun. We stuck out like dog’s bollocks at the Dam Sen Water Park but mostly we were all too busy with the joys of the “Twister Space Bowl” to notice.

And of course, touristing needs fuel. We ate our way through numerous bakeries, had a fancy night with cocktails at the Rex Hotel and a French dinner which was really just Catie’s excuse to order a steak and sampled rice noodles in every which way, often baffling waitresses with our prolific ordering.

Phun times on Phu Quoc

On the meticulously-researched advice of Dodd, we all flew down to Phu Quoc island for a beach holiday. In short, it’s best noted that at this time of year Phu Quoc is probably better suited to a Meteorological Society convention for those interested in extreme monsoonal weather. But no matter – the fridge at the bar was well-stocked and staff were happy to keep a tab running for us (yikes). Flight delays resulted in Kieran and Jane having to make an “Amazing Race”-style bolt for their connections home and us witnessing some severe breaches of the Asian “save face” rule (read: homicidal dummy-spits) from Vietnamese passengers.

What’s going on, Mekong?

After the anonymity of Saigon, our egos needed some massaging and so we headed for the tiny towns of the Mekong Delta where tourists are still very much a novelty. Or, for one tiny boy, a Godzilla-style freakshow as he sighted a shaven-headed, bearded and sunglassed Linds and ran to take cover behind a gate.

Our return to bus travel was, if nothing else, an interesting experience. Bus stations are apparently not the place to get a bus in Vietnam; it’s far better to get a moto to the highway out of town and wave your arms at passing vehicles, applying the “abandon hope” strategy adopted in Malaysia.

Ben Tre: Where the bins are all shaped like penguins; couples canoodle by night around an artificial lake and the beginning, end and 2-hour lunch break of the working day are heralded by an air-raid siren. Run by those dirty (literally) trade unionists, guesthouse is a close contender for worst accommodation of the trip – cigarette butts clogging the bathroom drain, friendly roaches and no toilet seat.

Vinh Long: Marred by a head-cold, activity was charmingly limited to drinking coffees by the Mekong. And speculating about the proportion of hotel residents who were renting the rooms out by the hour, if you know what I mean…

Chau Doc:  Roll-call for the bus here included 2 puppies, a baby chicken and about 20 plastic garbage bags full of pig’s livers. Thankfully, they and all their water-logged defrosted glory were in the cargo hold. Ewwww.

tropical beer notes # 10: the beer hunter edition

July 24, 2009

Beers of Saigon

Wowsers, there’s a lot of beer in Viet Nam. After months of monopolies and duopolies, it’s all a little bewildering. They are largely indistinguishable from one to the next, but it’s still fun seeking out newies. An added bonus is that most of the labels look like they haven’t changed since the 60s (probably because they haven’t). All this adds to the mystique that comes from downing beer in Saigon – a city that’s had more than its fair share of history (boozy and otherwise). All are lighter than light and light on the fizz so you can slam it down fast.

Those sampled thus far include:
Saigon Export
Saigon Lager
Saigon Special
Dai Viet

Going to go for regions – not individual beers – in this part of the world, although I can’t but help think I am missing the opportunity to turn our blog completely over to beer…

one way ticket to hell… and back

July 20, 2009






*DA: Dangerous Assumption.
*HR: Hideous Realisation.

0900: Arrive at bus station. Buy ticket. Eat baguette. ETD 1000. Feeling good.

1000: Bus leaves on time. A good omen, no? Consecutive screenings of Terminator 1, 2 and 4 (don’t ask). Monotone Laotian dubbing but Dodd knows all the lines anyway.

1500: Border crossing. Exchange worthless kip for marginally less worthless dong. Have temperature taken and written down on a Very Official Piece of Paper which is later screwed up and thrown in the bin by immigration dude. Hello Viet Nam.

1800: Arrive Hue. Pleased with the number of socialist-realist billboards and statues sighted so far. Bus station largely deserted except for one dude. Sleeper bus to Saigon leaving “somewhere between 2300 and 2400.” Vagueness arouses some concern but proceed with transaction as there is no other option. It’s 1000km to Saigon but apparently the NH1 highway is in good condition, so surely we’ll be there by lunch tomorrow (DA* #1).

1830 – 2130: Eat fish noodle soup. Get laughed at by locals. Buy muffins. Find internet place and write upbeat emails to Kieran and Jane about how we’ll be in Saigon very soon (DA #2).

2130: Return to bus station. Better to be there early, as we would hate to miss the bus (DA #3).

2130 – 2400: Spend time in the company of itinerants, mosquitoes and rats. Pee in a deserted corner of the bus station because the toilet is locked. Get excited when a few buses pull in to the station; disappointed to discover they aren’t ours. Discuss how the sleeper buses look quite comfortable (DA #4).

2400: Bus arrives. It’s ours. If not for us, the only reason bus would have stopped is to take on board a small cardboard box. Sleeper berth makes a child’s cot look roomy but no matter – after all, we’ll be there by about lunchtime (ibid DA #1).

0005: Catie realises her bed is above the toilet (HR* #1).

Unknown small hours of the morning: Dodd awakes. Bus pulls in to depot for no apparent reason. Bus goes to another depot to have windscreen washed. Bus then goes back to first depot so driver can smoke fags and watch TV with other drivers. Dodd closes his eyes and hopes this is all a bad dream.

0600: Driver switches on bus “entertainment” system. First auditory treats of the day are Asian Abba and Kylie medleys. OMG.

0800: Catie sees sign out the window – 650km to Saigon. Something has gone terribly wrong (HR #2).

0900: Breakfast stop. Thank God for muffins. Awkward conversation about ETA. Even Dodd’s maths can work out that travelling 350km in 8 hours is very, very bad.

0930 – 1300: Morale slumps. Turns out NH1 “highway” is more like Bagot Road (HR #3). Max speed 80km/h. Subjected to screening of entire series of Vietnamese “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Dark Knight” (with monotone Vietnamese dubbing), the violent scenes of which are particularly enjoyed by the small children on the bus.

1300: Lunch stop. Dine in silence.

1400: A few other beds vacate and Catie is able to move from her toilet bed. Grandpa in bed underneath Dodd emits series of stinky farts. Catie enters delirious state characterised by fits of uncontrollable giggling.

1600: Abba and Kylie medleys are repeated. Pray that “entertainment” offerings have been exhausted and we’ll soon be delivered from auditory hell.

1610: No such luck. Screening of Peking opera. Abandon all hope.

1900: Dinner stop. Highlight is bathroom featuring a female urinal (several pairs of bricks placed squatting distance apart over a concrete trough).

2000: Catie and Linds enter robotic states.

2200 – 2330: Any excitement over relatively imminent arrival is tempered by boredom of endless Saigon suburbs which seem to solely comprise enormous churches and brothels. Oh, and it’s pissing with rain too. Catie wills herself to sleep.

2330: Arrival. Not at all excited due to robotic states. Make our way to earmarked hotel. Nearly cry when lady says they’re full. Nearly kiss lady when she says they have room at their other hotel and they’ll send someone to pick us up.

2400: Ride through deserted streets on back of motorbike to hotel. Collapse. Vow to never set foot on a bus again. Ever.