My final leg took me to Southern Vietnam, namely Dalat, Mui Ne and Saigon.
On arrival in mountain town Dalat, when my rip off merchant taxi driver finally found my homestay, I was greeted with the friendliest smile from my host Mr Huong
Tucked away down a quiet street beside a canal, Scimitar Easyrider Homestay was a welcome sanctuary from another busy town and it ended up being one of the loveliest places I stayed on my trip (and coat me a mere £3.50 a night).
Sharing a home with Mr Huong and his wife, two of the warmest, kindest most hospitable people I met during my time in Vietnam, instantly made me feel brighter after my slightly off few days. It was just me and one other Dutch guy staying there and it truly did feel like home. I spent the afternoon drinking artichoke tea (delicious!) and learning all about Mr Huong and his life. He is a Buddhist and lives by the principle of treating others as you wish to be treated, so naturally is a gentle mannered, kind and smiling soul. He runs the homestay and works as an Easyrider (does anyone else feel the urge to burst into singing EITHER Easy Lover by Phil Collins or Cool Rider from Grease 2 – two of the best songs of all time – when they see/say this? asking for a friend) and his wife is a teacher. I had dinner with the family that night and we ate home cooked vegan Vietnamese food and chatted about their lives, their children and their views on the world (which were surprisingly liberal and progressive – Mr Huong believes in equal rights for women and letting his sons live a life they choose. GO MR HUONG!)
I only had two nights and one full day in Dalat so on the Thursday Mr Huong took me out on his bike. Dalat is a great town – quirky, fascinating, odd architecture, rich history and beautiful country and mountain surrounds. We went to see the old Soviet era railway station, the Buddhist temples and the beautiful Datanla waterfall, which was SO much fun as you access the waterfall via a self drive mountain rollercoaster! The mountain roads offered breathtaking views. We also visited the infamous ‘Crazy House’. Built by famous Vietnamese architect and eccentric Đặng Việt Nga using Gaudis work as inspiration, it truly is a sight to behold and a real experience to get lost in its nooks and crannies.
We returned mid afternoon and I headed to a cafe called One More Cafe, which had been recommended as it served good and varied Western food in rustic surrounds – and by this point I really needed some comfort food. I was beside myself when I read the menu and it took me about half an hour to decide what to order – baked potatoes, cheese ploughmans, lemon drizzle cake with mulberry jam and banana bread with almond butter were among the traditional English wares on offer. And, what I chose in the end, smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich on actual nice brown bread not white sugary cardboard bread. The best thing was they did real tea – not the weak ass Lipton stuff that’s everywhere in Asia. I had a pot of strongly brewed Earl Grey and honestly could have died and gone to heaven. I adore local cuisine and the food in Vietnam is some of the best I have eaten in my life, but after two months and a tough couple of days I felt well within my rights to enjoy some smoked salmon and proper tea.
I didn’t really want to leave Dalat, as I had spent such a wonderful time with my homestay host and finally started to feel relaxed. But the beach, and finally some good weather, were waiting and so I got the early bus to Mui Ne on Friday morning.
Mui Ne might just be one of the strangest places I have stayed on my travels. I took it with a pinch of salt – I was there to enjoy the sunshine, the sea and my relatively nice beach house hostel (Mui Ne Ocean House) and not do any exploring, so I could just about come to terms with its weirdness.
I think what makes the town so odd is that it is totally populated by Russians. The signs are in Russian and most of the staff speak Russian. There are Russians everywhere. I really hate to generalise nationalities and cultures on these trips and it makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable when I do, but I’m afraid in some instances you end up doing it and the overpowering presence of Russian culture in this tiny Vietnamese seaside town just felt WEIRD.
However, there is a small backpacker scene in Mui Ne – I think many, like me, head to the area in search of some sunshine and R&R at a beach club after a few weeks on the activity intensive backpacking scene in Vietnam. Beyond the slightly soulless facade of Mui Ne there is a great kitesurfing scene (which, needless to say, I did not participate in) and are also some beautiful white and red sand dunes that are worth a visit at sunrise, which I loved.
I managed to easily pass away 3 days here reading books and chatting to the girls I met at my hostel, so if you are after a pit stop on your way to Saigon, I wouldn’t totally discourage a visit.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
I travelled the 6 hours by bus from Mui Ne to Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh) with trepidation. I’d had a nice solid week off city life and was prepared to hate Saigon when I first arrived like I did Hanoi – but I absolutely loved it! I probably wouldn’t have wanted to spend more than 3-4 days there but I really did have a great time. It’s so different from Hanoi – it’s more modern, more clean, more cosmopolitan. I felt very comfortable there, although ultimately it lacked the charm of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
There is a financial/retail district with Chanel and fancy hotels and big banking buildings, there are some great green spaces, some fantastic markets for shopping and a second to none restaurant scene – not to mention the history. Rooftop bars a plenty and a gaudy backpacker street (as featured in every Asian city) offer plenty of booze options. The only thing that was a big shock for me was the traffic. I laugh in the face of The Ceri who couldn’t handle Hanoi traffic because Saigon is a total game changer. So many lanes, so many motorbikes, so many traffic directions and a total disregard for pedestrians. Crossing the road is not for the faint hearted, and neither is taking a Grab bike taxi. Sanne (who I met up with again yay) had to drag me across the road while I closed my eyes and made pained noises, much like you might need to do with a toddler.
I had a busy, social few days in Saigon and loved every minute. Sanne and I did what we do best and were so elated to see each other again had one of our wild nights out on the town when one Long Island iced tea becomes several and you feel a bit like dying the next day. We made friends with a couple of Brits, a group of guys from Houston and two lovely young Vietnamese girls in the bar we were in whose salsa hips put me to shame (and I really pride myself on my isolation, guys).
I will spare you all the details but getting home that night to our back alley hostel was a challenge when we discovered that past 1am they lock not only the alleyway entrances but ALL the hostels and it’s really hard to get in (even if you repeatedly push the doorbell). I guess Ho Chi Minh is not safe at night but we were genuinely shocked at how inaccessible hostels RIGHT off the notorious drinking street were!
We shopped the next day and discovered the very best thing we could have hoped for for our hangovers – French influence in Saigpn abounds and there are beautiful artisan bakeries everywhere. Tous des Jours did not disappoint and we ate pretty much everything we could manage / cheese twists, focaccia pizza, crispy pork buns, cream cheese puffs and sugary apricot croissants.
Sanne and I said our farewells on Wednesday when she headed badk to Holland and I felt so sad when she left. Sometimes you just click with a person and feel like you’ve known them for years and I am so so grateful we met as my trip to Vietnam wouldn’t have been the same without her. I truly believe we will travel together again somewhere in the world one day!
On Thursday, the heat was seriously intense and the thought of walking around the city for a day didn’t appeal, so I went in search of a 5 star hotel with a rooftop pool to spend the day at. I found The Rex, a glossy hotel in the business district, with two outdoor pools and a horrendously expensive rooftop bar and restaurant. I probably shouldn’t have gone there when my budget was starting to get seriously tight but I did and I had an amazing day playing fancy despite feeling very out of place.
Where to eat in Saigon
I had nothing but amazing food in Saigon – the restaurant scene is exceptional. In addition to the baked goods I mentioned above.
I ate a tofu and aubergine clay pot of dreams at Garlik just off Bui Vien, exceptional (and cheap) Bun cha and spring rolls at the aptly names Bun cha, and Pho to die for at Chicken Coop (washed down with some seriously good craft beer). This was the night I was absolutely delighted to meet up with my old friend Alan from Sanctuary, who was travelling with Adam (who also works there), for rooftop beers followed by this pit stop at the Chicken Coop. We reminisced about all things Worcester and it was so lovely to talk about home-home with people who love Worcester like I do – even if a tad bizarre doing it in crazy old Saigon.
My culinary highlight, though, was my dinner at Secret Garden with the lovely Merel who I had met in Gili Air and is a teacher in Saigon.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t take a single photo there, but that was because we were too busy having a big old life catch up and stuffing our faces. Secret Garden is located at the top of an apartment block down an alley way and through a motorway car park; it looks a little daunting on the approach but once you persevere up the eight flights of stairs you find an actual oasis – think outdoor dining, greenery, fairy lights and lanterns ad a generally buzzing ambience. We ordered seemingly endless plates of food – pork with ginger sesame and chilli, stirfried okra, salt and pepper squid and seafood fried rice – and did our best to finish it all. Afterwards we headed to Broma bar for more craft beer on a rooftop, listening to a live band sing Tracy Chapman covers with the warm city breeze blowing.
It was all just delightful and I am so eternally thankful for old and new friends in unfamiliar places, and the Saigon evenings I shared with you all.
Vietnamese War Museum
On my last day in Saigon I visited the Vietnamese War Museum, which is essentially a collection of photography that tells the story of how the war unfolded. I had been warned it wasn’t for the faint hearted. I was always aware of the Vietnam War but it is here you truly learn the scale of the atrocities of the war and the needless civilian devastation caused by US and French forces. I can’t unsee the brutal images I saw; for me the most shocking thing was the use of chemical weapons (named Agent Orange attacks by the US army) and the images of the human affects of these gases. I was in tears throughout and had to take myself away from the exhibition a few times to compose myself, but despite this would urge anyone visiting Saigon to visit and understand the sad history of this beautiful country.
(I also visited the post office to ship some stuff home that day and it’s a beautiful building!)
I had to make the decision not to visit the Mekong Delta or Cu Chi War tunnels but I understand both are worth visiting. For me personally, by the end of my time in Vietnam I had just decided I had had enough of tours and day trips and would prefer to spend some time in Saigon walking and taking in the city. I also needed to do some life admin and just catch up with myself a bit. Had I had more time in the South, I would definitely have visited both.
Vietnam and I had our ups and downs but it was ultimately an incredible (almost) four weeks in a truly fascinating place. By the time I left Saigon, I truly felt a lot of love for this country, its ever changing landscape and its people. Also the food and the cheap beer, obvs.
And something slight changed in me while I was there. I have never felt so self sufficient, resourceful, adventurous and free. Mum always told me “you have everything you need inside yourself”, and in Vietnam I learned that was true. Often I bat away being told I am brave but in Vietnam I FELT brave because I was so totally out of my comfort zone most of the time and everything just worked out in the way it was supposed to. I’m not suggesting I was some fearless intrepid traveller battling the wilderness of Outer Mongolia – Vietnam is totally backpacker friendly which I am grateful for, but I definitely had some personal challenges to overcome. There was an openness to the travellers I met there that made me want to be more open minded, take opportunities and live life a little differently – not just while I’m away, but when I get home.
I met some truly beautiful people and saw and did some awesome things. Thank you for the adventures Vietnam; because of them, I’m not sure I will ever quite be the same.