Tunnels, Tours & Taxi Scams: Our introduction to Vietnam

We’ve been in Vietnam now for two weeks. Every single backpacker we’d met on our travels had raved about Vietnam and how wonderful it is, so we had high hopes when we waved Indonesia goodbye and set out on our next adventure. But I’ve got to admit… we don’t love it.

Boat ride in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Saying that, it’s definitely growing on us. I think that because our expectations were so high, and travelling around Indonesia set the bar even higher, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Most people gush about Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, Ninh Binh and the Phong Nha Caves when they tell us about Vietnam, and all those destinations are in the north – somewhere we’ve yet to explore.

Ho Chi Minh City – scammed at the first hurdle

We decided to make our way from the south to the north of Vietnam – purely because the flights were cheaper to Ho Chi Minh than they were to Hanoi. I’m now really glad that we did it this way because the south has been a bit meh, meaning that we’ll end our adventure in Vietnam on a high after exploring the north.

We got off the plane, got our Vietnamese SIM cards sorted and headed out of the airport to the taxi rank. Now we’re not totally naive – we realise that taxi scams happen all over the place and that you need to be careful. However, being the seasoned travellers that we are, we assumed if we went to the official airport taxi rank and requested the driver use the meter, we’d be fine.

Turns out we were wrong.

Thirty minutes later we were in downtown Saigon having a shouting match with the driver over an extortionate £35 taxi ride. That might not sound like a huge amount for half an hour in a taxi, but I knew for a fact it’s 3-4 times the price we were meant to pay, so I refused… he got angry… I got angry… we ended up paying him half the price just to make him go away and stop screaming at us. Apparently this aggressive-taxi-driver routine is par for the course if you get in the wrong taxi. We learned the hard way.

Yay. Welcome to Vietnam.

The craziness of downtown Saigon, Vietnam

We spent a couple of days wandering around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), avoiding the shoe-shine blokes and ‘designer’ sunglasses sellers, trying to get a feel for the city. It was big, smelly, hot and loud… just your usual South East Asian city. We stayed on the ‘backpacker’ street, which is a god-awful strip of bars blaring out dance music so loud that no one can actually sit inside them, and selling bad food at worse prices.

Ho Chi Minh backpacker street… one to avoid!

However, after a bit of exploring, we did manage to find a good bar tucked away down a little side street which brightened up our stay no end. Live music and Belgian beers on happy hour, so Blakey was pleased. Plus the owner, a very chatty Dutch architect, was easy on the eyes, so Rebecca and I weren’t having a terrible time either. Something for everyone!

The ‘D’ Bar, Saigon – watching the bustling market below from our rooftop perch
The ‘D’ Bar – too many cocktails, but they were so good!

Unfortunately the resulting hangover left Rebecca feeling like death, and the next day we were leaving the city, meaning she had to pull herself together enough to crawl into her seat on the bus with a tube of pringles and a big bottle of water to keep her alive. Whoops.

Blakey buying yet another bubble tea, while Rebecca dies a slow death due to her hangover

War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the most important things we needed to do at the start of our month in Vietnam was to learn about the Vietnam war and it’s impact on the people. To do this, we headed to the War Remnants Museum in central Saigon.

The museum pulls no punches. For me, it was comparable to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima for the sheer emotional impact. But unlike the Peace Museum, which aimed to promote peace and lay out facts in a neutral way, the War Remnants Museum had vast undercurrents of anger and placed blame squarely with the invading US forces.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

After reading the accounts of the indiscriminate killings of men, women and children, staring at pictures of genetic deformities caused by agent orange chemical attacks, and looking through the long lists of the war crimes committed against Vietnam, I can see why the anger is there. It’s heart-breaking. In one room, there were pictures of the agent orange aftermath drawn by children, and a young man was in that room playing the keyboard for visitors. He had no eyes, being born that way due to defects in his DNA, passed down through his grandparents being exposed to the chemical attacks. We left. I cried.

After an emotional morning at the museum, we took a tour out to the Cu Chi Tunnels – an amazing 200km long underground tunnel network dug by the Vietcong fighters during the war against the American and South Vietnamese forces. They were incredible to see – narrow passages the soldiers would have to crawl through on their bellies, no way to turn around, hidey holes and traps to surprise enemy forces if they tried to follow them down there.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

Imagine trying to fight an enemy that pops up in the dead of night from all around you, then disappears like ghosts. Imagine not even knowing who the enemy actually were… the villagers would farm by day, going about their peaceful business, but by night would become Vietcong soldiers, fighting to free their country, creeping through the ground below you… behind you…

No wonder America lost the war, I wouldn’t want to fight in those tunnels, scary stuff.

Mui Ne – A Sand Dune Paradise, apparently

We took the Sinh Tourist bus from Hoi Chi Minh to a coastal town five hours further north – Mui Ne. We were lured there by thoughts of beach time, quad-biking and sandboarding down huge sand dunes, and exploring a magical sounding place called the Fairy Stream.

Full of hope for a fun afternoon sandboarding in Mui Ne

Well all I can say is that Instagram and travel blogs have a lot to answer for. The sand dunes were too tiny to slide down on boards (although we gave it a good go), the quad bikes ridiculously overpriced, and the Fairy Stream was nothing more than a disgusting muddy river you walk through, barefoot, with a million other tourists, all looking around thinking ‘is this it?’.

Rebecca looking really impressed with the ‘magical’ Fairy Stream, Mui Ne

Luckily the ‘tour’ to visit the dunes and the stream only cost us £5 each, so at least we got an afternoon out driving about in an old army jeep rather than mooching around the guesthouse staring at the rain clouds.

The worst bit was catching sight of the toilet shack by the stream… I’m 75% sure that the waste flowed straight into the stream we were walking through, swirling around in the chocolate-coloured water. The bottom did feel very squidgy…

I don’t even want to know where those toilets drain into… ‘Fairy Stream’, Mui Ne

On the plus side, there’s an excellent street food courtyard in Mui Ne, so we had some gorgeous meals. At the courtyard you could also get 3 litres of beer for £4… so obviously we had to take advantage of that. Unfortunately that’s the best I can say for Mui Ne – good food, cheap beer.

Da Lat – Mountain City

By the time we caught the trusty Sinh Tourist bus from Mui Ne to Da Lat, we were feeling a bit deflated. After being scammed as soon as we arrived, not loving Ho Chi Minh, having a below average day in the Mekong Delta (I didn’t even include it here because there is really nothing to say), then a rainy and disappointing time in Mui Ne, we were wondering why everyone kept raving about Vietnam. We kept thinking ‘Is it us? Are we all just miserable? Maybe we’re doing it wrong?’.

However, our experience was about to change. Happy days!

We headed up to the mountain city of Da Lat, known for it’s beautiful lake, adventurous activities and cool climate. We were only having one full day in the city before moving further north, so Blakey decided to try his hand at dirt biking – something he’s wanted to do for ages – and Rebecca and I, as we couldn’t ride motorbikes, decided we’d spend the day taking advantage of the cool weather and hiking up a mountain.

Crazy House, Da Lat

On our arrival day we explored the architectural oddity known as the Da Lat crazy house, designed and built by a Russian-trained local architect. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have an hour to kill in the city. Lots of twisty walkways, crazy looking rooms and bizarre features. It’s worth the £2 entry fee.

After that we went to the Escape Bar for drinks and to listen to the live band. We happened to arrive at the beginning of happy hour and somehow managed to drink our way through a fair amount of local wine and finally made it to our beds by midnight.

Sampling the local wine… 6 glasses in

Blakey got up bright and early for his dirt biking and roared off down the road. Rebecca and I did not make it up the mountain… we finally hauled ourselves out our beds at 1pm and walked about 15 minutes to a local coffee house to nurse our hangovers. We decided to get the cable car up the mountain instead… but then just stayed at the coffee place and ate grilled cheese sandwiches and drank fresh strawberry smoothies instead, occasionally moaning about the quality of local wine.

Luckily, Blakey had a brilliant day dirt biking. He came back full of beans and covered in mud. He was soon telling us about the roasted crickets he ate for lunch (gross), the nice waterfall he saw, and very proud of himself that he didn’t fall off his bike.

Blakey’s dirt biking trip, Da Lat, Vietnam
Blakey’s dirt biking trip, Da Lat, Vietnam

We spent the evening in the hostel with take away pizzas and a pack of cards, avoiding alcohol. We’d decided we needed to restrain ourselves from drinking so much and ruining the next day. I blame Rebecca. Before she joined the backpacking trip we hardly drank. She’s a bad influence.

South Vietnam – worth the trip?

Ok so I’m going to say no. Even though Da Lat is really cool, I get a feeling there’s going to be plenty of outdoorsy, action packed adventure type of places up north.

As for Mui Ne, we’d all recommend not making a special trip to go there – spend your precious holiday days somewhere else. As for Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels… I’d say yes to the city and tunnels, because the city has the war museum and it’s really important to get a sense of the recent history of Vietnam.

If you have a spare day then sure, go on a day trip to the Mekong Delta and get your Instagram picture wearing a pointy hat and paddling about in a little boat. That ten minutes will literally be the highlight of your day though, the rest wasn’t even worth writing down. Although check out how happy our guide was when he found a 28kg jackfruit, literally the happiest man alive at that moment.

Our guide, An, with his 28kg jackfruit

Ok, so that’s my moany post out the way – that was our disappointing first ten days in Vietnam, but the next post will be much better… our experience of a Vietnamese night train, beautiful Hoi An, and exploring Phong Nha caves & national park (we go tomorrow, so excited!).

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