Happy New Year 2011 everybody!
The year has started well and I haven’t broken any of my new year’s resolutions, mainly because I didn’t make any. Last year I did, and most of the goals I set were left unfinished during 2010, like happens to most people, I guess. I wonder where the habit of making the resolutions has started in the first place, and why would an individual have the moment of clarity to realize what he wants to achieve in his life time precisely on Dec 31st? I guess if you want to achieve something, better get working on it right away and not to craft a resolution about it 🙂
Anyway, I’m sitting in a cafe in Pham Ngu Lao -district in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s officially called, and I wanted to use this “free time” to catch up with the blog a little bit and to make coverage about Vietnam so far. You see, our travel group has been in a constant process of transformation, as some people have joined it from time to time, and some have left, only to join again later or to go back home for all eternity. But now, for the first time, I’m alone. And to be honest, it feels pretty nice to have some personal space and time for a chance. And now I have the time to plan my courses for the spring semester and to send a few job applications as well. This phase doesn’t last for very long though, as Tommi is flying here tomorrow afternoon, and then we’ll head out to Seam Reap in Cambodia, where we will (hopefully) meet Marcelu, who just left Saigon a few hours ago.
So, about Vietnam.. Before coming here, I had what could be called as high expectations without any concrete basis, since I didn’t really know a whole lot about Vietnam, and the few things I “knew” were mostly based on Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, I guess. But my expectations were high because almost all the people who I had met and traveled to Vietnam spoke so highly of the country. So I didn’t know what it was, but I had the feeling there was something good about Vietnam! 🙂
Perhaps I could start with a subject very dear to all of us from Finland, the coffee. It’s also a natural starting point because it’s usually the first thing on my mind when I wake up here, after those few seconds of half-asleep drowsiness. When I first heard from my friends that the Vietnamese coffee is extremely tasty, I sort of shrugged to the whole idea, since I honestly didn’t think it could have been so different from what I usually drink. Now I stand corrected, and I can say that the coffee, especially enjoyed with the condensed milk, which I as a person who drinks his coffee with milk in the first place usually take, is R-E-A-L-L-Y super duper delicious. And the funny thing is, I have no idea how the coffee is different from all the others. I was told that the coffee beans are roasted in butter, but after a quick googling, I don’t find any evidence from this. Well, in the end I don’t need to know why it’s so good, maybe the secrecy evens enhances the taste 🙂
So we flew from Bangkok to Saigon on Dec 29th, after saying goodbye to the other half of our group who decided to go to Cambodia. We had a very interesting overnight train from Saigon to the beach town of Nha Trang, as the sleeper cars where all booked when we came to the station, which meant we had seats in the very charismatic regular compartment. I couldn’t say it was comfortable by any measure, but the train certainly had this rough character to it, and in the end it was actually a very interesting journey, but I couldn’t have traveled for another night like that.
We spent a few nights in Nha Trang, including the new year’s, during which a beach resort/restaurant was turned into a open-air night club for both tourists’ and locals’ enjoyment. The party itself didn’t strike me as anything breathtaking after the ones we had on Ko Phi Phi, but we still had a ton of fun at the beach, celebrating the new year with some new Australian friends we had met earlier. We also visited a local hot spring during our stay in Nha Trang. The hot waterfall and a private mud-bath were very enjoyable experiences 🙂
After Nha Trang, we took a bus to Mui Ne with Sammi, and Marcelu went his own ways with the Australians, choosing the route with more cultural sightseeing, like temples and such, whereas we went for the sand dunes with Sammi. In addition to the amazing sand dunes, of which there are both white and red, we had perhaps one of the best meals of my life time. A local restaurant far away from Mui Ne’s russian-occupied beach resorts served us with Vietnamese BBQ, which came with an amazing fish-based sauce, and a beef hot pot, the only things on “the menu”, which was unwritten of course 🙂 We ate for a loong while, and couldn’t even finish the hot pot, and the whole thing, topped with a few beers ,cost us a very symbolic sum of money 🙂
On the sand dunes, where we went with our hired Jeep and driver, you could do sledging on the sand or drive around with a quad-bike, but the best part of the dunes were not the activities, but the place itself. It felt very strange to find these vast sand covered lands in the middle of a country which seems to be full of all kinds of vegetation and watery rice fields.
After a few chilled-out days in Mui Ne we took another bus to Saigon, where we would meet Marcelu again, and the rest of our group as well, if only for one night. Actually, the bus system in Vietnam is very convenient. The country, which is quite narrow but very long, has one main road running through it near the coast, and thus passes through almost all of the major cities which lie near the coast. So, you can buy these open bus tickets, from Saigon to Hanoi, for example, but you can stop wherever you want and continue the trip the following day with the same ticket, if you wish to. Also, all the bigger towns in Vietnam are literally full of small travel agencies that help you with any kind of ticket, accommodation, rental, tour or other needs. Sometimes a little bit fuzzy, but works like a charm in the end 🙂
I find Saigon a really interesting and cool city. We have mostly stayed at the Pham Ngu Lao back-bagger area, which is dotted with restaurants, cheap hotels, bars, travel agencies and massage places. Even though the area is really touristic, the atmosphere is really nice in the evenings, and we’ve had many fun nights here with interesting encounters 😛
We also did a one-day boat trip to Mekong Delta, where we saw some of the islands and got to see the locals in their remote villages, working on handicrafts, bee farms and coconut candy factories. The trip was totally worth the time and money, and I even considered continuing for another day after the others left, but didn’t have the time for it in the end. There’s some interesting places to visit in Saigon, like the reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, which was quite horrible experience in fact, and I couldn’t even go to all of the exhibitions after seeing the one about the use of Agent Orange by the US forces. But I guess it’s important that there exists something to remind the new generations of the horrors of war, and perhaps it contributes that way to a more civilized and humane 21st century. At least I certainly hope so..
After Sammi ended his vacation and started towards Sweden, we decided to have a chilled-out day with Marcelu and walked downtown to check out the pool areas in the high-end hotels. After visiting almost all of the USD 200 price range places, we choose a pool at the Grand Hotel and relaxed in the burning sun, dipping into the pool once in a while to cool off. Now that was life at its best 🙂 I found it amusing that the access to the pool cost us as much as we pay for our hotel room at Pham Ngu Lao 😛
I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam so far, and something tells me it’s not going to be my last trip here. Even though I absolutely loved the beaches in Thailand, something in Vietnam weighs more in the cup. It’s hard to say what it is, perhaps just the atmosphere and character that was missing in Thailand (or missing in the tourist places where we mostly spent our time). Well, it’s always hard to choose from two good options, but luckily, I don’t have to =)
That’s all folks!
PS. The post title refers to the two phrases you hear around 1000 times each during the day here: “Hello my friend, need motobike?”, or just “motobike?” I was thinking of buying a t-shirts that says in Vietnamese that I don’t currently need a motorbike, but I couldn’t find one so far 🙂