I arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City in the evening. There's no time difference although my watch was 10 minutes faster in general (useful for checking in, waking up, etc). I didn't know how my host Kha Le looks like, so I looked for my friend Seb with his fantastically-popular curly hair. I found him with five other unknown people waiting for me. One of them is Kha Le. Then two other friends are my fellow couchsurfers, Andy and Lisa; the rest is Johnny, Seb's second cousin and Seb's Vietnamese friend (whose name I forgot immediately but I remember that the other girl we met the next day has exactly the same name. Vietnamese name usually consists of one syllable only, unlike Indonesian which has too many syllables!). Apparently Kha also hosted three other guests that night: two French boys, Yan and Clement, and an American girl named Sarah. The ten of us went for dinner together afterwards. I knew nobody but Seb yet we talked as if we were long-lost relatives (well, there's an element of truth here in Seb and Johnny's case). Lots of new people in one night, and that's just a start.
I had no single đồng and had relied my life to the kindness of my traveling buddies. There was traveler's cheque but it seemed that this mean of money isn't very famous in Vietnam. We spent half of the day trying to exchange my TC. We got lots of hand waving, a 'renowned Vietnamese gesture' to say no, can't or not possible. We went sightseeing Saigon on foot and although I dislike big cities, Saigon was fine to me, thanks to its nice cheapo foods. We went to War Museum just before it was closed at 5 pm.
Booked a tour to Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi tunnel. We teamed up with Andy and Lisa, our affable Austrian friends. Having stayed in Vietnam for almost a year, Seb was believed to know the most about almost everything. However he confidently predicted that the trip would only take about 30 minutes when in fact we arrived at the temple in a good 3-hours drive! I was lucky to find a Filipino girl called Nash, otherwise I would be left cold in the bumpy journey. We saw Cao Daists had their daily ceremony at the temple. I found the religion interesting because it combines so many famous entities. Cu Chi tunnel was overly claustrophobic: narrow, dank, tight and pitch-dark. I felt my breath was taken away, literally. In the evening we had dinner cum Seb's farewell party. There were some more foreigners turned up (aka Seb's friends)! I don't even remember how many people were there, but it was quite a nice bilingual che-drink party.
We took an overnight bus to Da Lat, a town in the highland. Seb were talking to Johnny the whole journey, adding a buzzing-bee sound to my sleep. Despite the lack of sleep, we hit the cable car immediately. I met more foreigners again. Luckily this new friend, Vu Le, is not particularly xenophobic. Alas, he's engaging and hospitable. That night we ate rabbit cooked in many different ways. It was delicious although I didn't devour as much as my other four male counterparts. Later on, we visited night market where I met another foreigner, Kimitoshi, (another) Seb's friend from Japan.
On the trip to waterfall we were turned back by a flock of Cao Daists. Vu said he was impressed by their ability to ruin our meticulous plan. We decided to go to the lake instead, but we mistakenly entered another attraction, which was a kind of amusement park with very random characters and a zoo filled with animals I suspected were contaminated by Agent Orange. There was a dance by an ethnic minority group that we happily participated. Then we took a stroll to The Valley of Love, where I don't think was the best place to visit with four indifferent boys ^_^. The silk embroidery exhibition was cool, especially for its free entry (but the tea was awful). We eventually had dinner with Vu's parents who are very sociable and speak fluent English.
Johnny had left for Cambodia. We continued to Nha Trang, a beach city in the northeast of Da Lat. The view from Da Lat to Nha Trang was amazing! I wish I camped or hiked among those mountains and waterfalls instead of paying an entrance fee to a puny flower park. For sometime Seb was busy with his mobile phone because he had no place to stay that night. The reception was bad too. Fortunately everything was alright in the end. I made friend with my host Derek from Canada also Lena and her sister from Denmark before falling asleep in a couch (experienced a real couchsurfing at last!)
I went to the beach with my CS friends very early in the morning to take some photos of the sunrise (I guess Seb would have loved this). On the way back I was lost and got barked by some dogs that I decided to broke into a stranger house to phone Derek. I was lucky to find a nice (and good-looking ;-p) French guy who lent me his mobile. Then the rest of the day was spent chatting and drinking by the sea (with another Seb's friend called Huang), which was indeed very pleasant and relaxing. I was full in a holiday mood. Yet the best part was the lovely spring roll dinner which still makes me drool even now.
Boat trip. I really love the feeling of jumping off the boat to have a cocktail while floating on the sea. Love the feeling of hopping with the waves when did a little bit of swimming with my new friends Zoe from China and Isis from Venezuela. In short, I love Nha Trang's sea. I will call it The Nice of South East Asia. Well, at least the coffee price is a bit like one in Nice (read: ridiculously expensive).
A strange day. Our bus annoyingly broken down twice and we spent twice as much time on the journey as we should have. However, Seb amazingly made more and more new friends during this accident (what a chap!). When we finally got to Quang Nam to attend someone's wedding, it was high time for lunch. This is my first time coming to a stranger's wedding the night before D-day and joining the groom's family. I suddenly felt 'familiar' with Vietnamese wedding.
The wedding. In fact, I wasn't quite sure what to do but it was rather...interesting. It was like the old days when me and my friends turned up in a strangers' wedding to have free foods. Anyway, after the wedding we went up to Da Nang, another beach city which is a bit off the tourist track. Dinner with three other foreigners who are also our hosts. We gorged sea foods and ice cream, before posing in front of a flashing neon-colored bridge that is kind of a landmark of Da Nang.
Hoi An. This ex-Champa city has plenty of art and craft shops littering on their charming old town. Seb had his suit made in one of the tailor shop and he became poor at once. We accidentally meet Dzung, another(!) Seb's friend from Hanoi and I intuitively decided to go to Hue with her the next day! Going around for a while, I immediately fell in love with Hoi An: free temples everywhere. Also, I had the nicest drink ever in this town. On the way back to Da Nang we took the super slow minibus, even two girls in a bicycle overtook us. Then we went night swimming on Da Nang beach which was surprisingly almost deserted after the rain.
Hue. Went visiting the tombs. The entrance fee is more expensive for foreigners as usual, so I asked my Vietnamese friends to buy the cheaper tickets for me (because I am from a third-world country full of poverty, beggars, corrupted officials, malaria and all). It was a boiling hot day and I was tired of waking up so early that I heard nothing from the history the tour guide told us. I only could recall that the emperors were so lavish in their death, as seen from the ornate decor of their tombs. Perhaps they couldn't hardly wait to die. In the evening I went to a traditional Vietnamese song on the boat. The highlight is floating a candle down to the river. Afterwards my friends invited me to karaoke. I refused since I had not learnt anything from the singing performance on the boat.
Dzung kindly took me for a rickshaw trip around Hue. At first I insisted to go on foot because I spent one sixth of my money in Hue only! But mostly my Vietnamese friends are so generous and they think a few thousands dong is nothing. Back in the tour again, I paired up with another Vietnamese for cheap tickets and made friend with two amiable Italian guys. I saw the majestic Citadel and thanks to my poor navigational skill, got lost in it. For the first time in Vietnam, I took a train. It was to Quang Binh. I wish I could tell more about Vietnamese train but I spent most of my journey sleeping like a baby pig after my wonderful Vietnamese friends stuffed me with foods at all times.
Seb planned to visit Phong Nha cave but apparently there wasn't any public transport going there regularly. So we rent a motorbike! It was fun because only a few days ago Seb successfully located the brake. After repeating 'Hail Mary' ten times in my heart, we boarded on a motorbike trip about 8 km outside the town. It worth all the efforts for the cave was above an underground stream runs between the undulating landscape. The boat paddled smoothly to the cave entrance, before it was suddenly surrounded by one boat after another. In the end it was getting more and more crowded that then was similar to a floating market in the cave. Awesome. We climbed to the upper part of the cave and started using our imagination to guess the shape of stalagmites and stalactites. The best was the one Seb named as 'stalagmighty', a stalagmite which 'sat on a throne'.
Hanoi. Last stop. During the first hour in this city, I'd already got told off twice. It was great because I don't understand a word. Like other big cities in the world, Hanoi is not exceptionally friendly, especially the traffic. Instead of pushing the brake, motorists will yell, blow horn, and keep zigzagging while avoiding to run you over everytime you try to cross the road. Standard. The best part about Hanoi is when I tried to cook with chopsticks. As a matter of fact, I don't really master how to use chopstick for eating, let alone cooking! Of course there are some nice things in Hanoi like the tourist information centre and the water puppet, but I was quite happy to get to the airport early to take my flight home on the next day.
I would like to thank everyone whom I mentioned in this post and lots more unmentioned. All would be impossible without your help and supports. Specially I thank Seb for making a highly organised itinerary although sometimes didn't work out very well ^_^ (but I really appreciate him for being a superb host). As if this post isn't long enough, I made a list of things I remember the most about Vietnam (apart from dozen bowls of phở, few glasses of che, scrumptious Vietnamese coffee cà phê sữa đá, bitter colorless iced tea and Johnny's Banh Bao):
- Plastic chairs. It's lucky that there's not so many extremely fat people in Vietnam.
- Cacophonous horns. Who needs a brake when you have the loudest horn?
- Minibus for 10 metres/hour. It's always the same speed for this kind of transport (I took it twice!) I'm sure I can walk faster.
- When we drove motorbike without license, the advice was "Pretend you don't understand Vietnamese!" Well, I don't need to pretend, really. Despite my very Vietnamese look, I have zero linguistic ability.
- Vietnamese music video which is not much better than Indonesian's. Thank God.
- Seb's singing on the wedding. Nobody sang as close as in Vietnamese idol, but his painful face really said what he felt when singing (constipated). It's the highlight of my journey!