It all started with our Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I arrived a little over two hours before the scheduled departure and spent the next 57.2 minutes standing in a queue pushing my bag forward precisely 28cm at a time with my foot. There was one time where it was 35cm but I don’t want to go into too much detail. Standing in line I was looking around for signs of the other 4 group members also flying out of Brisbane, I was checking in with Kat as we arrived around the same time and I could spot Jules sitting on a couch talking with what turned out to be my “Thunder Buddy”, Jess. So an hour into our adventure I had located the first 4 of our group of 12 but there was one missing from our 5 Queenlanders and that was, we were to find out over the course of the next week, no surprise at all. We were missing Helen.
After wondering around the Brisbane airport for another 40 minutes or so we found Helen chatting to what seemed a long time friend but was actually someone she’d just met in a fine display of her rapport building skills. We made our introductions and boarded our flight. Our trip had begun!
Fast forward about 8 hours and one amazing beef curry and we’re on our way to collect our bags with crossed fingers that Kat’s would even be there. It wasn’t! Turns out that just saying ‘yes’ is not always the best idea especially when asked if you’d like to check your bags all the way to Saigon when you have a stopover in Bangkok! The baggage services staff in Suvarnabhumi Airport did a stellar job of finding Kat’s bag though, retrieving it from the depths of who knows where and 45 minutes later we were Pathumwan Princess bound.
I’d like to say from experience that Pathumwan Princess is a great property, as I’m sure it is, but truth be told I can’t remember too much as we arrived after 10pm and were checked out by 04:30 the next morning on our way back to the airport after a very tired introduction session, where we all got to meet each other for the first time as a group.
Ho Chi Minh, home to the best German bier house this side of Munich. Who’d of thought! We certainly didn’t so imagine our surprise when we stumbled across and then subsequently out of one(a few hours and a rain storm later), while out walking
the streets of this sprawling city, struggling to think of anything but how hot it was and how much we all wanted a Bratwurst.
We somehow managed to find our way back to the hotel to begin our first tour of the week with the charismatic Yow, our HCMC guide from Buffulo Tours. He took us on an evening ramble through the back streets of Saigon and to a myriad of little food stalls for us to sample, and sample we did. I don’t think I was ever as full as I was at the end of that tour, could have been the 3 steins of Dunkel Hefe…but more likely it was the delicious local food that there was definitely no shortage of.
Next morning was the city cyclo tour where we got to live life like a local for a few hours. Most of us just enjoyed the novelty of the experience but for one it was an invitation to try and actually live like a local by commandeering a cyclo and peddling the driver about, no doubt in search of a tip! After wondering through a seemingly endless wholesale market we found ourselves enjoying a glass of the local iced coffee before heading out to cruise the Saigon river and learn how to make rice paper rolls with the onboard chef. Now the Vietnamese are quite a minimalist people so try to imagine the look of amusement on the chef’s face as Josh 2 and I proceeded to make a rice paper MEGA roll with the ingredients that should have been enough for 4 or 5 rolls all wrapped up into one not so neat but wholly delicious package. All that was left, at least after traipsing around Saigon for 3 hours in search of an elusive pack of playing cards, was to escape the heat and chillout/drink by the pool while we waited for the transfer to the train station.
Surprised…. That was my emotion when we got aboard the train having stocked up on supplies a.k.a beer. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the train is luxurious, super comfortable or even clean to ‘western’ standard but I will tell you that it exceeded expectations which, I guess, is a given when your expectations are set very low. The beds were reasonably wide and mattresses thick enough to make you not feel like you were sitting/sleeping on a sheet of steel held up by chains. The toilets left a lot to be desired but back we come to the expectations thing, I was literally expecting a hole in the floor with the tracks wizzing by and a cool breeze jetting upwards, but there was actually a proper toilet with flushing water and everything. Not clean, but functional nonetheless and…. above expectations. The journey itself was enjoyable, there is something truly mesmerizing about relaxing and watching the world go by the window, drinking a cold(ish) beer whilst trying to think of something one has never ever done.
Thankfully, at least for Josh 2 and I(who may or may not have been up drinking until 1 am and getting hit on by an amorous train guard from Hanoi) we didn’t have to get off the train until after lunch so we had plenty of time to nurse our hangovers before heading to Hoi An Beach Resort for a quick freshen up and straight into what was in my humble opinion the best tour of the trip, the Farming and Fishing tour of Hoi An. We jumped on our bikes, and cruised through the countryside winding our way to find a crazy buffalo farmer who gladly took whoever wanted to go for a ride on his buffalo while punching out an amazing rendition of Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier mashed up with Rawhide by the Blues Brothers. HYAAAA!!
Back on the bikes we went and off to a local veggie farm where we got to have a go watering the plants, which although I realise sounds utterly riveting, was actually pretty fun as it was watering Vietnam style with a can on each hand strapped to a pole over your shoulders. Let’s just say that my feet got wetter than anything else and I can’t help but feel like the little old lady we were supposed to be helping was glad to see the back of us so she could give her plants the sustenance they so obviously needed, both before our arrival and after our departure.
Next stop was the Jack Tran’s Eco Cruise which was hilarious. From the moment we stepped on board we were entertained by the crew(all 8 of them) and the views of sunset on the river with silhouetted fishermen casting nets, were pretty stunning, as was the crew’s energetic version of Gangnam Style on basket boats. We got to cast nets, Helen hijacked another Vietnamese vehicle and then jumped off the side of a boat and pulled in a massive net from the beach with the help of Jules and a big wooden wheel.
After getting to have a go in the basket boats ourselves, getting suitably wet in the process and enjoying a rustic but very tasty seafood meal cooked onboard by the crew, it was time to head into Hoi An town and see what the night life was like. We battled through hoards of street sellers trying(and mostly succeeding) in flogging off rubber band toy birds and helicopters and the promo people trying to entice you into ‘their’ club. In fact, there was that many things flashing through the sky and Vietnamese people seemingly appearing out of nowhere that I thought we may have gone back in time to the late 60’s, all that was left to do was to cross a heavily occupied bridge that stood between us and checkpoint Bravo(aka The funky Monkey) where a relief package of beer, vodka(ish), sheesha and cocktails awaited us. We eventually made it to our extraction point, dug in and popped smoke although we did sustain casualties along the way. Alfred, our mascot for the evening, may he rest in pieces, didn’t make it but, per his last wishes, his momma has been notified that he won’t be home for Christmas.
Mercifully, we had another pretty chilled morning with nothing planned until our 11am pickup for our train. To the Pool! With a tasty breakfast in our bellies and a quick beer at the swim-up bar in the resort pool we were on our way to the next and final train trip of the week and I couldn’t wait. I’d heard that the scenery coming out of Danang was pretty amazing but without seeing it with my own eye’s I wouldn’t have believed just how amazing it was. You’re winding up through hills right by the coast and apart from a few wires and the odd bit of shrubbery, you have virtually unobstructed views for about an hour of some of the most beautiful sections of Vietnam’s coastline and nearby islands. Needless to say, as soon as we got on-board, the cards came out and we settled back into the familiarity of global train travellers and the games that go along with it this mode of transport. As darkness descended, the games became less about the cards and more about who could make everyone else take the most ‘drinks’ and with 10 people in one train cabin, lots of people made lots of other people take lots of drinks. You would think that with a 4:50am arrival in Hanoi that we’d have called it an early night and we did. 12 or so beers is early right?
We arrived in Hanoi at just before 5am and most of us were a little worse for wear but thankfully our tour didn’t start until 1pm so most of us got out an about after some breakfast and for me personally, I enjoyed wondering around Hanoi more than anywhere else. I found loads of little market places and stumbled across some sort of temple complex which I am sure never makes it onto any tour itineraries as they seemed unaccustomed to seeing westerner’s but they all bowed and smiled so I guess it was OK that I was in there.
Our tour commenced at 1pm with a beer(you have to be seeing a theme here by now!) and some more Cyclo action before we started our walking tour. Quite a walking tour it was too with my tracker clocking up 23,000 steps and over 17km’s. Granted we did do two tours back to back with lots of food and ‘refreshment’ stops but it was a big day which turned into, yet another, big night of sampling the local beers with our guide Zinh who was also trying in vain to find a vendor of Snake wine. We never did find the snake wine and our night culminated in a city wide hunt for a Karaoke bar at close to midnight on a Thursday night. Needless to say, we went to bed with our lungs full of songs and our pride still intact and that was it, our last night in Vietnam.
Back on the bus in the morning and Zinh had a surprise for us. Snake wine!!! Turn’s out he was not happy with not being able to hook us up the night before so he hunted around some more and finally found some. Regretfully, we had to hand it back to him with a promise that we would help him finish it when we came back to Vietnam as there are literally pickled animals in the bottle and there is no way that it was going to make it through customs. I’d love to say that it tasted better than it looked but there has to be a line and I believe that hard liquor just after sunrise is somewhere in the vicinity of it.
All in all, I had a fantastic week in an absolutely amazing part of the world and what’s even better was that I got to share it with a great bunch of humans. And Alfred, we can never forget about Alfred and the ultimate sacrifice that he made. Rest in pieces.
Written by Daniel Vloedmans from Infinity Rail