Monday, 12 April 2010


After a very long journey, we arrived tired and bewildered into Noi Bai airport and were instantly approached by a young Vietnamese guy who spoke very good English - he supported Chelsea (English football is huge out there), his favourite player was John Terry, he liked Cheryl Cole and Britney Spears, oh, and a friend of his had a taxi and could give us a lift to our hotel. It sounded like a great offer. We weren't to know then, having just arrived and in an inferior state of awareness, but all the signs of a con were there - it wasn't a metered taxi, and they kept telling me that I was 'very beautiful' - firstly, after so many hours of travelling, this was never going to be the case, but it is a very good indicator of when you are being ripped off! So, these 'helpful' guys dropped us off at an ATM and instructed how much we should take out - you cannot get Vietnamese Dong (VND) outside Vietnam, so unfortunately we weren't aware of what the exchange rate was. Basically, what should have been a $30 taxi ride cost us nearer $200. Not the best start to a budget trip, but you live and learn. Where some countries are known for violence, Vietnam's biggest problem is its' con artists, so chances are we were going to experience one at some point. It's not what you want as soon as you get there, though.

After an initial minor setback, we weren't put off by the city. It was actually pretty charming, if completely disorientating. The streets are manic, filled with people, stalls - food, souvenirs...anything!, but mostly mopeds and motorbikes. They're everywhere. They fill the roads - to try and cross you have to hold your breath, walk, and hope that you're avoided, and if the roads get too busy, well, people take to the pavements, honking at you for being in the way. In the middle of this chaos, is Hoan Kiem Lake, a centre of calm. There are pavements surrounding it where people quietly sit, or the more energetic exercise. The multicoloured lanterns and extravagant flower displays were added extras that had been put up in preparation for the Tet celebration (Vietnamese New Year) that was coming up that weekend.

We went on the city's walking tour, as outlined in the Lonely Planet guide, which gave a really interesting overview as it took us through a cross-section of the Old Quarter, the city's temples, and traditional markets. One market in particular sticks in my memory - it was busy, so you had to walk through it very slowly, which was fine when the stalls were selling fruit, vegetables, or household goods. But then there was the pretty extensive meat section, which tested my gag reflex. Piles and piles of raw meat surrounds you, that had presumably had been sat out until early that morning, as well as a big bag of live toads, chicken feet, goose head and necks, and probably a host of other delights that I missed as I covered my nose and mouth and focused on nothing more than getting away from the smell.

There is a wealth of cultural buildings, museums, temples and pagodas dotted in the centre of the city and all around it. I don't think we did a bad job of taking in the culture. Our first stop was the Temple of Literature, a complex dedicated to early Vietnamese scholars and their teachers, which had been celebrated with a collection of ornate shrines and large stone plaques with tortoises at the bottom.  Every shrine is looked after with such care, there is always burning incense, fresh flowers, food - usually fruit, and the whole temple is spotlessly clean. In fact, Vietnam in general is a very clean place, there is no litter, and it is not uncommon to see women sweeping the streets near their shop or stall just to clear the dust.

As for the famous Ho Chi Minh complex, which contains the mausoleum, the museum, Ho Chi Minh's house and stilt house, and botanical gardens...our visit was a little unsuccessful. Granted, it was our own fault for not reading the guide properly, and failing to notice that it was closed between 12 and 2, so turning up at 1 wasn't great, but, it wasn't our fault that Ho Chi Minh was not in his mausoleum...apparently every so often he gets sent to Russia to be cleaned. It's kind of morbid, but it makes sense that a corpse needs cleaning once in a while. Eurgh. On a brighter note, if you go at the right time of day, when Ho Chi Minh is in town, the complex is beautifully maintained and well worth seeing. We did manage to have a nose around the stilt house, which was interesting, but the leafy grounds surrounding it are much more striking, not to mention the pond teaming with excitable carp!

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