A Tale of Many Snacks: Da Nang, Vietnam

‘Don’t stay long in Da Nang,’ they said. ‘There’s only a bridge there,’ they said.

‘It’s half an hour from Hoi An,’ we said. ‘By Asian standards that’s about fourteen seconds. We are going to Da Nang.’ There’s also a train line that runs from Da Nang to Hue, our next stop, and everyone we met who had done the journey in the opposite direction raved about the views from the train.

One day I might elaborate on the fourteen-second journey from Hoi An, but for now let’s just say that it was the longest fourteen seconds of my life. Between our hostel in Hoi An and the one in Da Nang, I got lost, found the only cafe in Vietnam without Internet access, had my first ever moped ride and ate three Snickers bars and a pack of M&Ms. When I did arrive, I couldn’t work out if the shops and streets were closed because it was Sunday or if it was because everyone was right about the city being dead, but dinner was a packet of M&Ms and more Snickers (I haven’t eaten either since).

I woke up way too early on the first morning – well, at 8am, but it was one of the few days of the trip that I turned my alarm off and it was therefore too early – courtesy of a local school. There is no way you’d get away with a hostel full of grubby adults that close to a building full of children in the UK, but we were technically in a homestay. Our hosts had converted some rooms in their house into dorms, and a few others into classrooms for local children to learn English from volunteers. In another life, I’d have the temperament to volunteer to teach English, but in this life I grew up listening to My Chemical Romance and therefore say the word ‘fuck’ twelve times a day. Also, I was on holiday.

I went out for breakfast (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but Maxim is rarely awake before noon when left to his own devices) and I could not find a single place selling food. We had unwittingly stumbled into the least touristy part of Vietnam; Danang’s wide roads, tarmacked highways and looming office blocks could be part of any big city anywhere.

Christmas Tree in Danang Vietnema
Or they could until you notice the Christmas trees in February, anyway.

I found several cafes and bistros in our neighbourhood, but they only offered coffee and yogurt. If I’d been less exhausted and bewildered it would have been fun, but at the time I just wandered around thinking Surely local people eat out too? I still don’t know why this was the case in Da Nang but nowhere else in Vietnam, because I wasn’t after Western food (although there was a KFC), I just wanted to get rice porridge from somewhere that wasn’t a street vendor. SOMETIMES IN LIFE YOU NEED SEATS. After I caved in and got yogurt, which was served in a glass and pronounced ‘yourt’, I bought some home-brand Pringles and on-brand Dairylea triangles. Breakfast of champions, I told myself at the homestay, and the next day I bought cornflakes and borrowed a bowl from the kitchen. I should add that our hosts offered breakfast, but it was off limits. I felt like a dick with my Kellogg’s but IBS comes before everything, and at the time I hadn’t worked out that pho (rice noodle soup for those of you who have not experienced holy grail of noodle dishes) does not contain eggs.

Yoghurt in Danang, Vietnam
It might not be a meal, but yogurt in a glass is better than yogurt in a tinny pot. It comes with a straw, for god’s sake.

It was Valentine’s Day while we were there, and one of our roommates, Alice, invited us to a coffee bar for the evening. I didn’t think ‘coffee’ and ‘evening’ went together either, BUT IT DOES. England, you are missing a trick. Stop closing your cafes at night and keep them open, with live music and some food, all night. People are sober and chilled out and very, very awake. I’m going to do an entire post on Vietnamese coffee one day – I miss it like I miss pho, the weather and not changing my own bed sheets. If you’re planning a trip to Da Nang and like to drink, relax – there’s a good Aussie bar down by the water front (which is where everything seemed to be, including non-Aussie bars and, um, restaurants. Possibly I should learn to read maps). I pushed the boat out and had a gin and tonic (I think it was my third of the trip; the other two were on Koh Rong when I hurt my foot and thought a $4 mixer was a better idea than weed), and my lasting memory of the evening is of an old white dude at the bar dancing with a local lady like he was in a sleazier version of Strictly. Now I come to think of it, I’ve seen him in Southend.

We also saw Da Nang’s crowning glory, a bridge. I know, I know, a bridge. Boring. Except this bridge is a dragon.

Da Nang Dragon Bridge from a distance
The dragon breathes fire and water every weekend. IT ACTUALLY BREATHES FIRE.
20170214_150748425_iOS
Please, Marvel, include this beauty of engineering in a film. Have it talk. Please.

Sometime during our stay in Da Nang was the first time I walked along a street and felt normal. Backpacking is weird; staying in one place for no more than four days at a time is weird; South East Asia is weird. I love all those things, but it took until mid-February for it all to feel normal. Apparently Da Nang is considered to be one of the best places to live in Vietnam because of its infrastructure; there’s a free hospital, plenty of schools – I can attest to their productivity – and a good road system. People just get on with their normal, every day lives – which is the most comforting thing you can see when you only stay in one place for four days. Don’t pass up the chance to go.

In Which I Am Going Home to a Foreign Country

This morning I worked out that if I did one blog per week about each place in South East Asia that I haven’t talked about yet, I would have told you about everything in… 13 weeks. That’s longer than the time I’ve spent in South East Asia. If I do two a week and devote a third post to something else – like looking for a job and being reunited with my pets and re-learning to wear jeans – I will probably have finished up by the time I’ve found a job. Or is six weeks too soon to find a job? I’ve been away from home for so long that I can’t really remember how European time (sorry, sovereign British time) works. How long will I spend in traffic getting to my nan’s? What time do shops stay open until? How long do commercial breaks run? It’s a good thing we’re finishing in Thailand, where motorists drive on the left side of the road, because I’m already fully expecting to try overtaking on a hill while going round a blind bend, tooting my horn and chatting on my mobile. And that’s wrong. Right?

I’ve been trying to think of something philosophical to write about leaving home and traveling and returning home, because isn’t the whole point of going backpacking in your twenties to find yourself but either I’m really unaware or I’m already a salty old lady, because I can’t think of a bean to say. I think the UK might actually feel more alien than Asia at this point; I keep thinking of all the things I want to do when I get home, and how I’ll approach certain parts of my life differently, but what if my new ideas are not okay in Southend? I mean, I realistically won’t drive like a Laotian minivan driver. I also probably won’t barge past people on pavements, because in Britain it’s just not done. And I’m definitely happy to be leaving a region where it’s normal to discard rubbish in the street, where a lot of children don’t go to school, where landmines are an every day occurrence, where equal marriage is literally a foreign concept. But I’m going to miss how friendly people are, how willing they are to help foreigners even if they don’t really understand you. I can hand my phone to a tuk tuk driver so he can look at my map, and I know for a fact he’ll give it back to me. I’ve been leered at once. Just once! I’m going to haggle in every market I go to, I won’t have such a problem talking to complete strangers any more and I’m probably never going to judge other people’s bathroom habits ever again.

Probably.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
Why, WHY isn’t street food more of a thing in Britain? (Taken in Luang Prabang, Laos)

Something I’ve become very aware of is that I can walk into a dorm that sleeps six people and hear five languages that aren’t English. Out here the locals can identify me a mile off as a backpacking white girl, and they’re kind enough to indulge my shitty pronunciation and wide-eyed stares and total ignorance. As an British person I’m one of the few foreigners who doesn’t speak two languages; English is the default language for pretty much every traveler I’ve met, from Scandinavians to Ethiopians, while I’ve understood maybe four words of other people’s languages. Again, they’ve indulged me. I’ve even picked up some new vocab, although none of it is usable in polite conversation. Unlike holidays I’ve taken with family, amongst backpackers there hasn’t been a single xenophobic comment about anyone to anyone, and no one’s spent dinner accusing a Brexiter of being a fascist or a German of being a Nazi. Trump supporters are discussed with more nuance than I’ve ever heard in a western news broadcast. The most grief I’ve experienced is when I’ve told people I’m from Essex and they’ve said ‘I’ve heard of Essex girls,’ to which I’ve replied I’m not what they’ve heard of; at home I’ve had people call me ‘exotic’ and ask where I’m from in a tone that really just means they’re asking if they can say something Islamophobic in my presence and get away with it (spoiler alert: no). I’m going back to a country in the middle of a debate about what it means to be British, and I’m not sure how I’m going to fit.

Hue, Vietnam
I was served this Pina Colada in Hue, Vietnam, and I kind of feel like if the Vietnamese can use an American flag as decoration in a shitty beverage, the Leave voters I know can make amends with the Remain voters they stopped speaking to last year.

I guess I’m going to learn a lot when I’m home, huh. By the way, how much does a coffee cost in the UK at the moment? I’m used to paying about sixty pence.

South East Asia Day 79: Missing the UK… (Or Not)

If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.

Things I don’t miss about the UK

  • Drizzle
  • Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
  • Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
  • The Daily Mail
  • Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
  • Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
  • Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
  • Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
  • How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
  • Having two-four jobs at any one time
  • Easter advertising at the end of January

Things I do miss

  • DOGS
  • My friends
  • Decent chocolate
  • Cupboards
  • Private Eye
  • Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
  • Family
  • Smoking ban in public places
  • General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
  • Staying in the same place for more than a week
  • Good TV
  • Having a job
  • Porridge
  • Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
  • Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
  • Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
  • Getting my eyebrows waxed
Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There were no windows in the bathroom/dorm of our hostel in Ha Long Bay; walking there took about 30 crooked stairs and it was 30 people to a room. This was the view I woke up to. TL;DR: I can live without getting my eyebrows waxed.

 

The Cu Chi Tunnels & Ruinification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You’d think after South East Asian toilet facilities I wouldn’t be phased by a hole in the ground… but at least you’re not expected to live in the sewage system.

You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.

Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.

Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.

As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.

Entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During the war, tunnel entrances were so well hidden that even Viet Cong couldn’t always find them.

Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!

Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.

I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.

We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:

The Ruinification Palace

From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.

SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.

My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.

I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.

Tết in Saigon

We arrived in Vietnam from Phnom Penh just before Tết, the lunar new year (what everyone knows as Chinese new year), thinking it would be a New Year’s Eve celebration similar to home: fireworks, street parties, raucous festivities…

What actually happens is that most people go home for the holidays, clean their homes and shut up their businesses from anywhere between three days to a week. Not exactly Hogmanay… but also way more fun than getting wasted all evening and waking up on 1st January to some questionable Facebook mentions and a hangover the size of New South Wales. A few backpackers complained that the city was ‘dead’, but if 50,000 mopeds, 20 street vendors per road and several million locals spilling out of coffee shops and bars and restaurants all week is dead, I would like to see ‘alive’. Here’s what you can entertain yourself with in Saigon during new year:

Random Street Parades

I had breakfast on Bu Vien, the main backpackers’ street, on our first morning and watched a lion dancing parade roll past. Then I saw another the next day, and another the next… The city also closes off an entire street, Nguyen Hue, and fills it with flower decorations. Think the Mall on a celebration day meets an extravagant florist. Families walk through in their best clothes and take photos. As 2017 is the year of the rooster, it felt like a very fancy Easter egg hunt during the Chelsea Flower Show…

Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Getting a clear photo was almost impossible because about 10 families at one time wanted the same photo in the same spot.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street during Tet Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
They remind me of the 2012 Olympic mascots…

Notre Dame Cathedral

No, not the French one. Christianity is less of a thing in South East Asia than Buddhism, but more of a thing than I thought it was. Vietnamese Notre Dame isn’t as spectacular as Paris’s, but it’s still a lovely, if disconcertingly European, building.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I’ve become so used to buddhas that it actually took me a minute to remember Mary’s name.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon plus Diamond Plaza, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We didn’t go in as there was Sunday service, but we did notice that the giant glass building right next to it looks like it would fit nicely in Vegas.

The Central Post Office

Saigon’s Central Post Office is near Notre Dame, and as someone who both sends and makes postcards it’s important that I visit as many post offices as I can while I’m out here (I do have other hobbies but none of them are as exhilarating). Saigon did not disappoint.

Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Can you imagine how good my Instagram would look if I shipped all my orders from here?!

Saigon. Just Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Is that a block of flats that became a block of cafes? Are they just really cute house fronts?
Ho Chi Minh City city centre, Vietnam
This is a main square at the city centre. There are a tonne of old buildings across the city, but development is EVERYWHERE.
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
A tree on a roof next to a building on a roof.

Also seen: a squirrel chained to a tree, a truck full of pigs and monkeys, small roadside fires (people burn offerings), large roadside rubbish tips (Saigon is a dirty city – rubbish is just dropped in the street), people feeding pigeons, a couple eating dinner on a moped.

Then again, all of that is pretty normal for Vietnam whether it’s new year or not.

The Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum

I was going to merge this post with another, because I’m terribly behind on sharing what we’ve been up to (I’m writing this from Hue, central Vietnam, which I think is our fourth place since leaving Saigon) but on reflection it deserves its own title.

Dedicated almost entirely to the Vietnam War, the War Remnants Museum isn’t quite as horrific as anything Cambodia has to offer, largely because you’re walking around a pleasantly air conditioned building with snacks available on every floor, but I still don’t recommend going if you dislike a) criticism of the American government, b) graphic photographs of the effects of chemical weapons or c) communism. The museum’s information plaques are verging on pro-Vietnamese propaganda, but once you’ve seen a few photographs, there’s not a lot of room to disagree.

SOME HISTORY: in 1955, communist North Vietnam, its South Vietnam-based allies the Viet Cong and various communist states, went to war against capitalist South Vietnam and its main ally, America, plus a bunch of other anti-communist countries. The North won and Vietnam was reunified as one country in 1975, but not before eight million people were killed and thousands worldwide protested against the US military’s heavy involvement (which as far as I can tell, benefited precisely no one except for chemical weapons companies).

The ground level of the museum is given over to war memorabilia like protest signs (I had no idea just how many people from so many countries marched to show their opposition to American policy… sound familiar?). Outside are a couple of helicopters and the remains of a prison block which I think was used by either the US, or the French during their occupation. Torture methods included confining prisoners to tiny cages and pulling out teeth, etc. So if you were depressed by my post on Tuol Sleng, don’t despair – gruesome torture is an international phenomenon!

Guillotine, Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum, Vietnam
Yep, that’s a guillotine.

The next two floors are altogether grimmer. One gallery is dedicated to the work of war photographers, most of whom were Westerners and many of whom seem to have been killed before their work made it to print. I suppose the magazine spreads look a bit antiquated compared to the the live-Tweeting that’s been going on in Aleppo, but the images themselves are spectacular – and look way better in print than on a little screen.

War Remnants Museum Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
It is harder to take photographs of photographs than I thought it was.
War Remnant Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The gallery contains the work of 133 press photographers from all over the world, and took four years to collect.

The second gallery of doom is dedicated to the victims of napalm and Agent Orange. SOME HISTORY: organisations and individuals on both sides committed horrific war crimes (rape, torture, civilian massacres) but the USA arguably takes the biscuit with its liberal use of napalm (the burning one) and Agent Orange (the chemical defoliant one) against the Vietnamese people.

I only took a few photos and I won’t share them here because they are horrible. I had seen burn victims before, but napalm sort of peels the skin from the body until the person resembles a zombie’s self portrait. The photographs of the herbicide victims reminded me of a hall of mirrors. Victims still look like people, but only just. Effects of the toxins include about four types of cancer, cleft palate, Parkinsons, water on the brain, developmental disabilities and spina bifida. And that’s just a few names I got from a list. I didn’t know that the chemicals stay in the environment for years, and can worm their way into people’s genetics, so people are still being born with the effects of a warfare programme that ended in 1971. Victims – which include Vietnamese people but also war veterans and their families – have sued various chemical companies in the years since, but I’m not sure what’s actually come of it. If you want to see real-life victims, by the way, come to Vietnam in 2017! Once you notice the hunchback and the lady crawling on her hands because her legs don’t work and the Agent Orange victims’ charities, you don’t really stop noticing them.

Gallery at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam
Other exhibitions include photos of buildings and local people during the war.

I will leave this here because I want to have a shower and think about something that doesn’t depress me… JK Rowing roasting Piers Morgan on Twitter, maybe. It’s the little things in life…

Coconut Candy & Crocodiles: the Mekong Delta

Hi from Vietnam! We’ve been here a couple of weeks already and done a lot, and I’m going to post slightly randomly, because we did a few more museums and – surprise! – they were grim. So to start, here is our day trip from south from Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City to anyone who can be arsed to use the city’s post-war name, which is zero people out here) to the Mekong Delta.

First of all, let me stress that if you travel from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, you need to stop off at the Mekong Rest Stop. I have become well acquainted with Asian public toilets in the last month and I can safely say that I have never been to one – out here or at home, actually – that’s had such a pleasant ambiance. There is a lake. The lake has lily pads. There are bridges and paths and little places to sit. There are restaurants with cute names and neatly organised crockery. I didn’t have time to take a picture because I spent 15 of our 20 minutes queuing for the toilets (nothing is perfect) but it was prettier than some places I’ve paid to visit.

This has been your public service announcement.

Our trip took us to three islands on the delta’s tributaries, which are named things like Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. The most mystical thing I saw was some fire dancing, but we’ll get to that. We were warned to keep our arms inside the boat in case of crocodiles and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a caution – there isn’t any health and safety out here, but no one wants to be eaten by a prehistoric lizard – but the river has been over-fished, so there aren’t many left. I don’t think there’s much of anything left, as fishermen tend to go right out into the sea to catch what they’re after. There’s still a tradition of painting eyes on the front of boats though, to keep the crocs away.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I may paint eyeballs on my car to ward off motorists who can’t use their indicators.

On our first island we visited a coconut candy factory. I haven’t done a blog on South East Asian food yet so you haven’t heard me complain about the lack of chocolate (there are Snickers, M&Ms and Hershey’s in the shops, but American imports are expensive so most of the confectionery is cake-y). Instead of chocolate, sweet toothed (teethed?!) Vietnamese eat coconut candy, which is basically coconut plus malt sugar. The cooking process is ridiculously simple (mix and cook for half an hour) and we got to try some. It tastes a little bit like toffee and a little bit like fudge and a lot like something you’d find in Honeydukes or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I have a serious sweet tooth – I was distressed to learn I’d have to pay five dollars for a Hershey’s – and a few mouthfuls was sweet enough for me. Maxim managed about one bite, so it is possibly not for the savoury-minded… or the diabetic. I would’ve bought some for home, but we’ve got two more months of travelling and the odds of a lump of gooey sugar surviving in my bag are worse than the odds of the US administration not starting a war, so to get a flavour of what it’s like, do the following:

  1. Get some coconut flavoured toffee
  2. Turn the heating up
  3. Run a hot bath so the entire house is nice and steamy
  4. Release several thousand insects onto your property
  5. Eat the toffee
Coconut Candy factory in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
This is where the candy cooks over coals. Sometimes they add flavour, like peanut or ginger.

Our second island was kind of surreal. New year celebrations hadn’t finished (I will talk about them in another post), so there was a circus-type variety show on with a guy eating knives and a girl dancing with fire to Lady Gaga songs, as well as traditional lion dancing. It felt both very Vietnamese and very international, but I guess Lady Gaga has that effect. The island’s regular entertainment included a couple of pools full of crocodiles, a couple of shops with bags made from the crocodiles’ late cousins and a fleet of ancient bicycles that I refused to touch (partly because they came out of the ark and partly because my feet wouldn’t have reached the pedals).

Tet Circus Celebration Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Yep, those are knives balanced on his nose.
Crocodiles in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I’m not a crocodile fan, but I’m not a crocodile handbag fan either…

The third and final island was probably the closest to what I’d expected from the tour: we tried local fruits while a group of musicians played local folk songs – and If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands which is one Western import that needs to disappear from everywhere, including the West – and got stared at pointedly by a lady with a basket until I took one for the team and tipped a thousand dong. Then we tried honey tea in a traditional-yet-quite-commercialised ‘local home’. I mean, it was clearly someone’s home, but no one serves tea in formal dress and heels. As someone who used to work for a tea bar I can confirm that honey tea is a) nothing like regular tea and b) delicious. They keep the bees on site (some actually flew around us and took little baths in the honey as it was served) and the tea is essentially a spoonful of honey plus lime juice plus what I think was honeycomb, topped with boiling water, served in a shot glass. I’m going to try it at home, and maybe sell it as a hangover cure-come-detox method because it was one of the few genuinely healthy beverages I’ve ever tried that also genuinely didn’t taste like vomit.

As this is Vietnam and an excursion wouldn’t be complete without using the term ‘that’s bizarre’, the same house had a cage with two pythons, and visitors could drape one of the pythons around their neck while posing for a picture. I abstained because I am not suicidal, and couldn’t help but notice that while one of the pythons was out and about, the cage containing the other was left wide open. Bizarre and a potential international disaster!

Our final sight was the traditional Mekong riverboat trip, the one you’ll see if you Google the Mekong Delta. The views are wonderful, and as we did it at low tide you could see where the water normally came up to, which was kind of ethereal and cool. The downside was that the lady paddling our boat spent most of the 15-minute trip demanding that we tip her. She’d point to where other people had left dollars or dong in other boats and kept up a running commentary of ‘Tip? Tip!’ so much that I nearly told her ‘Never pat a burning dog. Oh and always cleanse, tone and moisturise instead of just using soap, you’ll really notice a difference.’

Riverboat on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Traffic jam…
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
The delta’s water is actually quite clean – the colour comes from the soil, which is very fertile. It’s also freshwater, which is why the islands are so green.

There was no beautiful rest stop on the way back into Saigon, unfortunately, but there was a thunderstorm. I didn’t manage to get a good picture of the drenched motorcyclists, but I did find it interesting that they use their giant plastic ponchos to cover the moped’s handlebars and main light as well as protecting them and two or three people sitting behind them… I have no idea why it hasn’t caught on at home.

Next up: exploring Saigon!