A few months earlier, one of the boats sank, drowning all 12 tourists aboard. Since our boat was a newer one, we didn’t let that deter us and the cruise was a trip highlight.
With a population of 90 million in an area one-third the size of British Columbia, Vietnam is crowded, and the streets choked with traffic. With ten rows of motorbikes approaching from both directions and few traffic lights, trying to cross a street can seem futile. The Vietnamese simply saunter slowly across, letting the traffic swerve around them. In Hue, my travel companion plucked up her courage and crossed the street Vietnamese style. When I was unable to do the same, a local man, chuckling at my predicament, marched over, took my arm, and led me across.
The main attraction in Hue is the Imperial City, built in 1805 and modelled after the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
We took the local train from Hue to Da Nang; it was old, but adequate, and the fare only three dollars. Our guide book said it was a four-hour trip. After two hours, the train made its first unannounced stop. As there were no signs in English, or other Englishspeaking passengers to ask, we assumed it wasn’t our stop and stayed on board. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor appeared, glanced at our tickets, threw her arms up and exclaimed, “Ah your stop!” Realizing the next station was hours in the opposite direction, half-jokingly I asked if she could stop the train. She rushed away but soon returned saying, “Hurry, train stop, not long.”
The train groaned to a stop, the other passengers helped throw our luggage out, and we jumped into a pile of rubble at the side of the tracks. After we’d cheerily waved goodbye to the laughing passengers, we realized we were miles from the nearest town. We were spared a long hike by a helpful local.
Having admired a dress that Julianne had made in Hoi Ann, a shopping paradise famous for its tailors and seamstresses, we went on our own shopping spree and had 16 items custom-made in two days. Our best buys included cotton sun dresses for $15, embroidered silk dress for $30, and a cashmere wool winter jacket lined with silk for $45. The quality and service ranged from excellent at Mekong Tailor, to poor from seamstresses in the cloth market.
Although custom-made clothing can be made overnight, with an overwhelming choice of fabric, designs and tailors, three full days in Hoi Ann would have given us time for lastminute alterations.
In Siem Reap, the town closest to the famed Angkor ruins in Cambodia, we stayed at the Borei Angkor Resort and Spa. The service was, by far, the best I have experienced anywhere in the world. Upon entering the lobby resplendent with mahogany wood, we were greeted by a hostess offering glasses of pandan ice tea. After inviting us to sit, she checked us in as we were serenaded by a lady playing a Khmer xylophone.
Our hotel room was a luxurious retreat swathed in raw silk, with a spa-like bathroom complete with a rain shower. All this luxury cost $60 per night, including airport shuttle and an extravagant breakfast buffet.
At the Angkor ruins we marvelled at their architectural complexity, elaborate carvings and vastness. Some sources say that at its peak in the 12th century, Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire, was the largest city in the world, with an area of 1,000 square kilometres, and one million people. Two of the more well-known sites, Angkor Wat and Phom Bakehng, are part of the tour-group circuit and can be crowded, especially at sunset. But the perhaps even more impressive Ta Prohm site was almost empty.
During late April and early May, the weather in Cambodia was hot and steamy, with temperatures in the high 30s. We stayed cool by hiring a driver with a tuk-tuk, a carriage pulled by a motorbike, less expensive and more fun than an air-conditioned car. Julianne opted for a cheaper “moto,” a ride on back of a motorbike — possible with a backpack, but we didn’t try it with suitcases. However, in Chau Doc, we took our luggage on a “cyclo,” a pedal bike with a buggy in front.
A locally arranged two-day tour took us from Phnom Penh back to Vietnam through the Mekong Delta on many different modes of transportation. On the first leg, it was only the two of us in a private minivan, possibly that of the travel agent’s uncle. As the road narrowed and sightings of other tourists became scarce, we wondered what we had got ourselves into. The road became a dirt lane so narrow that an arch strung across it for a wedding had to be dismantled to let us pass. Eventually, we reached the Vietnamese border crossing of Ving Xuong, where a sampan and boatman awaited us. The slow, peaceful trip down a tributary of the Mekong River evoked 1930s Vietnam.
Although the two-day tour was a budget one popular with backpackers, we modified it by paying extra to upgrade the hotels. As well, if we weren’t thrilled with the looks of the restaurants that the tour guide led us to, we searched out our own.
Did we feel safe? Other than rickety boats and death-defying traffic, we had only one unsettling incident. In Ho Chi Minh City after paying a taxi fare in full, the driver swapped the 50 dong bill we’d given him for a 10 from his own pocket, and then insisted that we hadn’t paid him enough. When we hopped out of the taxi, he chased us menacingly, but backed off when a policeman approached.
On a few occasions in northern Vietnam we received hostile looks from older people but, otherwise, young and old alike smiled, waved or flashed the peace symbol.
Despite the mishaps, we never once wished we’d opted for a group tour. Not only did we save money, but we had an exciting adventure with experiences we might otherwise have missed. The 17-day trip, including hotels, meals, entrance to tourist attractions and travel within Vietnam and Cambodia (but excluding airfare to and from) cost $1,500 each.
The $800 to $1,200 saved by not taking a group tour was more than enough to finance the shopping sprees.
A piping hot bowl of Bun Cha (Hanoi’s signature dish) is served at a street stall in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Pillow-soft bites of fried pork, savory broth, sliced green papaya
and herbs are augmented with fresh bamboo, spicy chile sauce and pickled garlic.
Visitors to Vietnam’s lovely Halong Bay
will be quickly targeted by locals who row madly about in small, covered boats and offer up everything from apples to bananas to spiky dragonfruit — not to mention candy, cigarettes, beer and
Vendors cooking on the streets of Hanoi.