Naughty ‘Nam, Hoi An & Jeremy Clarkson

Tegan, my little miss sunshine & Saigon roomie

On my first night alone again in HCMC I sat and reflected on the previous fortnight. I had had a blast with my friend but I was determined to get back on the spiritual path and devote myself to moderation once more. That night as I settled into my bunk bed and listened to the sounds of the streets outside, I felt alone. In fact, I felt lonely. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going next in the world and I felt the need to bounce ideas around. I logged into Thorntree – the Lonely Planet forum for travellers – and linked in with a lively online discussion group who were all bemoaning how ‘touristy’ HCMC was and ‘full of chavvy backpackers’. I suggested that, from time to time we all suffer from this particular malaise – thinking, mistakenly, that we long term backpackers are ‘above’ the traveller scene. I suggested to the guys online that we greet everyone with a broad smile and an open heart – whether authentic local or white westerner. After all, you never know what experience is awaiting you.  

Dana, my new BFF

Deciding that to practice what I preach, I headed out of the winding alleyway to the street beer bars in the Pham Ngu Lao area. I would recommend to anyone going to Saigon to spend at least one night at one of these street-side bars, where the atmosphere is possibly the best of any drinking establishment I have frequented (and believe me, I have patronised a few). Everyone huddles together on tiny kindergarten sized plastic seats and all proceedings are overseen (at Cafe 100 at least) by an formidable Vietnamese woman in her 80s. This lady stands up all night and ensures that you are seated and have a beer in your hand within approximately 30 seconds of your arrival. At no point will you be empty handed – and with the beer cheaper than water, what better way to refresh? 

The elderly woman who oversees proceedings at Cafe 100

However, drinking on the streets in Vietnam is actually illegal and, at periodic intervals, the ‘chair police’ patrol the road. The police drive, inexplicably, in the back of a pick up truck with sun umbrellas over the top and slowly cruise the street. As soon as the patron of the establishment notices their appearance, all customers are ushered up to standing and there is a kick-bollocks scramble to stack the chairs up. The bars are usually full to bursting, with patrons spilling out onto the streets, but once the police are there we have to crowd onto the pavement. This nightly ritual is hilariously pointless…The police know that everyone is sitting on the plastic seats on the road but they continue their drive by and so, every half an hour the game of musical chairs begins again. Other spectacular sights in Pham Ngu Lao include dancing prostitutes who erect giant speakers and dance through the streets, promoting their wares and a man who swallows a live snake then spits it out (and a load of black stuff) onto the floor. Rank. 

Feeling the love with Rogier (young Dutch!)

I planned to order one drink and hopefully have banter with other travellers. Within moments of ordering my 12,000 Dong beer (that’s about 30 pence to me and you), a group of travellers started to assemble around me and squeeze into the miniature plastic chairs and tables. I found myself sitting next to Dana, a fellow sassy, sexy solo female traveller. We both bonded over our mutual travels in China and in Asia. And so, one beer turned into many and the scene changed to group bonding, yoga asanas in the street (who knew I could do a head stand in my mini skirt when drunk) and onwards to what would affectionately later become known later as ‘Gang Rape Bar’. My one beer had turned into an all night bender that even my former media girl self would have been proud of. 

Cafe 100, where the beer is cheaper than water
Our lovely drinking crew
John – my new male BFF

I sailed into the Saigon Youth Hostel at 7am in the morning and was kindly handed a cheese baguette (the French influence still lives on), had a quick shower and turned around immediately to head out to my Cu Chi Tunnel tour. I had already booked and missed one trip (due to having my handbag snatched – another story and sadly not an uncommon occurrence in HCMC) and was determined not to let anything, not even lack of sleep prevent me from going this time. However, I’m not the alcoholic I once was and soon began to feel the after effects of the all nighter. I staggered to the tour office and tried to persuade the agent that I was only fit for a half day not the full day tour (a staggering 8 hrs which took in Tay Ninh temple, too). But he wasn’t having any of it – I had paid for the full day and the full day I would do. 

The drunken Irish guy (inappropriately, still drinking beer!)

I fell asleep outside the office – a crumpled mess on a bench – and was woken up by a tour guide who came to escort me to my bus. En route I fell in with a lovely chap called John and I instantly liked him. When we got to the bus stand, however, John was ushered onto the half day bus and I was left standing there in the already scorching sunlight, hungover, feeling like ‘death and loss’ and alone once more. As I watched the bus pull away the woman shot me a sunny smile and waved me on. I jumped shouting “I MANIFESTED THIS!”Much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. I stumbled to my seat then began to insult (in an affectionate kind of way) an Irish guy who was sitting next to me. Turns out he was as drunk as I was and we both managed to amuse the rest of the bus until I passed out, exhausted, thus missing the entire commentary by the tour guide.

Putting on a brave face…

The extensive network of underground in the Cu Chi district of Saigon which were used by the Viet Cong guerilla fighters during the Vietnam War are now one of the major tourist attractions around Saigon and many tour operators run buses there several times per day. Whilst it seems inappropriate to visit such an ‘attraction’, you have to hand it to the Vietnamese – a race who has been invaded and pillaged from all corners – for managing to turn their tumultuous past into something positive. The network of tunnels which spans 250km, were built with the bare hands of Vietnamese people during the French occupation but were expanded to provide a competitive advantage over the Americans in the 1960s. They played a major role in the Vietnamese winning the war with several military campaigns based there including the Tet Offensive in 1968. The tunnels originally stretched from the Cambodian border to what was then Saigon and remain as a testament to the fighting spirit, resilience and ingenuity of the people of Vietnam. 

OMG I’m going in…
Beer fear: don’t try this on a hangover!

Entire communities of Vietnamese Cong fighters subsisted in these tunnels which were only a couple of feet in height and width: living, working, educating their children and even giving birth in there as well as planning deadly attacks on US forces and the South Vietnamese. In addition, American soldiers were deployed into the tunnels. In a horrific spin on hide and seek they would try and find the Vietnamese before they found them…Scary stuff, especially as the VC had the place booby trapped to buggery. Many of these grisly traps still exist and are on display as part of the site’s attractions today. The Americans or ‘tunnel rats’ who had the misfortune to be enter the tunnels coined the phrase ‘black echo’ to describe the way life down there. Rats, scorpions, parasites, vermin and disease was rife, especially malaria which was second only to battle wounds as a major cause of death. As part of the ‘attraction’ at Cu Chi, visitors are able to enter the sections of the tunnels – ranging from 150 feet to 650 feet in length and crawl through the dank, claustrophobic network.

Me and John: getting tanked up! 

This part is definitely the hardest thing about Cu Chi. Many of the tourists that I was with started to enter the tunnels then bolted, having changed their mind. A lot of people couldn’t even go down there. I am proud to say that, although it took me a couple of attempts and much hyperventilating, with the help of some other awesome chicks on the tour, I made it through the entire 650 foot network. Fortunately, there are several ‘get out’ points where, if you need to exit due to panic, you can. We emerged sweaty but triumphant, much to the admiration of many of the boys who had not been able to stomach it. Note to self though, going underground at Cu Chi tunnels is pretty difficult at the best of times, never mind the morning after the night before, on no sleep whatsoever and feeling plenty of beer fear! I think the photos speak for themselves!

I’m a lover, not a fighter. Honest!

The other activities at Cu Chi included bomb craters, booby traps, scarily life-like mannequins of VC soldiers and a few abandoned tanks that were available for clambering on. There was even the option to shoot an AK47 or a M16 machine gun. Of course I got on board, despite the fact that I was blatantly still drunk. It took me back to the days when I earned my striped as a corporal in the army cadets!  We rocked around the site, our merry tour group, including the Irish lads who were still inappropriately drinking beer and eating bags of crisps. Our cheeky faced tour guide didn’t seem to mind our irreverent attitude, however, he was just pleased we were having fun. Once again, I had to admire the Vietnamese for their sense of humour and philosophical outlook, despite the atrocities of their recent past. 

Lanterns in the quaint streets of Hoi An

And so our bus full of love and wonderful people drove back to the backpackers district of Saigon and we all chatted nineteen to the dozen. As well as John, there was the articulate Phi, yet another American (based in Cali, no less) and Shona, a wonderful English girl with whom I shared more than a few things in common. The Irish lads, who had provided us with so much amusement, finally dozed off to sleep and John and I talked and talked about everything from art to Hinduism to life and everything. In fact, we couldn’t stop talking and even though I was completely exhausted, so inspiring and energising was his company that we spent the rest of the day and evening together, chatting over coffee. He drew me a one page map of Vietnam in my notepad (the only piece of cartographical reference I had to rely on) and we vowed to meet again in Cambodia to continue where we left off in a week’s time. the universe had spoken. I made plans. 

White rose dumplings, a Hoi An speciality

However, I had a few more things that I wanted to explore in Vietnam before my visa was due to run out, so I flew up to Hoi An, a beautifully preserved South East Asian port town that is now a listed UNESCO heritage sight in the Quang Nam province. I spent a day sightseeing, wandering through ancient streets with buildings tangled with bougainvillea and visiting many colourful temples and pagodas.  I watched some traditional Vietnamese dancing and feasted on delicious local treats, including the legendary white rose dumplings made up to resemble tiny roses. I also reconvened with Phi and Sho (a coincidence that the combination of both their names = mine?) and we enjoyed some girly time together including more gastronomic delights, street food and even some Vietnamese wine. 

Getting ready to burn rubber

Tommy, one of the guys in our Saigon drinking massive, had told me about a motorbike drive he and Johnny (a fellow scouser) had done, which had featured on Top Gear. Not wanting to miss out, I managed to find myself two willing lads to accompany me on Vietnam’s most beautiful drive – from Hoi An to Hue over the mountain road. You might remember that Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond did this drive on Top Gear. If not, you can watch the clip here. Driving along the coast road with the wind in my hair, I really felt as if I was finally ‘doing Vietnam’. 

The boys, taking in the view

Having made the spectacular drive over the mountains, I nearly got separated from the boys on the way back and thankfully caught up with them at a roadside stop. I didn’t have a mobile phone, or a map and although I’m a good driver, am rubbish at directions and was relying on them to get me back. Unfortunately, they were both as terrified as me (if not more) and on the way home we lost our nerve and had to come back through the city – not a good move as we were sharing lanes with up to 60 other bikes at a time and negotiating horrendous traffic. We ended up following a bus back to Hoi An! Not so rock n roll. But the drive has inspired me to go back and drive the length of the country next time, on Highway 1. I’m looking for potential biker buddies to accompany me…so let me know if you’re keen!  

Biker chick

Miss Saigon: Decadence in HCMC

Motorcycle Madness
Good Morning Vietnam. Or rather, Good Evening! Having waved goodbye to Shanghai, I breezed off the aeroplane and the humid streets of Ho Chi Minh City greeted me in their balmy embrace. Watching the banana trees wave in the night air, I felt glad again to be back in a more ‘rustic’ part of Asia. The sensation didn’t last long. The first impression any newcomer has to HCMC is unadulterated moped, motorbike madness. Pretty soon my taxi was in the centre of the melé, hurtling along at speed with hundreds and hundred of two wheelers. Upon arrival at the backpacker area, my cabbie got out, took my hand and personally led me across the road into lines of never ending traffic. I would come to realise that crossing the street is an art that requires nothing less than balls of steel: you simply take a deep breath and walk directly into the oncoming stream. 

Sampling the local cuisine in Ben Thanh market

I found my way down a typical, winding dark lane off Pham Ngu Lao to My My Art House, a tall narrow building (apparently there is a law in Vietnam which dictates that the wider the building the higher the tax and so most of them are built in this precariously vertical fashion). I was greeted by the very camp, friendly patron and harrumphed my backpack up 6 flights of tiny stairs to my shared dorm. Back in the real world. I was waiting for a friend to meet me and I was reluctant to get started on tourism until she arrived. So for two or 3 days I immediately got stuck into FOOD, one of my main passions and the chief inspiration for my trip to Vietnam. 

Mango salad – one of my all time favourite dishes

Hailing from Hackney (in recent years) where there is a huge Vietnamese community and ensuing proliferation of restaurants, I had become a fan of the cuisine. In Saigon (although it was officially renamed as HCMC in 1976 most people still prefer to call it by its previous name) I feasted upon shrimps in tamarind sauce, mango salad, spring rolls and squid from street stalls, tiny cafés and the wonderful Ben Thanh market. Ohhh and let’s not forget Vietnamese iced coffee…made with condensed milk, the sickly sweet stuff is perhaps one of the world’s greatest hangover cures and is best enjoyed local-style – on the pavement, sitting at a tiny folding metal table on an even tinier plastic chair. It is a great vantage point from which to sit and watch the city – at 8 million people the biggest in Vietnam – bustle by. 

Cocktails by the pool in Legend Hotel

My friend Sandra* arrived from London and we checked into the salubrious Legend Hotel, a good base from which to explore the more cosmopolitan and upmarket part of town (definitely not one for the backpacker budget, especially the fabulous bars around the Hai Ba Trung area). Having spent most of the previous 7 months in the developing world it was a complete contrast for me and I enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in luxury, eating rich meals and having a few cocktails by the pool whilst catching up with Sandra.  

Newspaper cuttings in the War Remnants Museum 

Keen to hit the sights, one of our first stops was the War Remnants Museum. Previously known as the Museum of Chinese & American War Crimes, it (as the name might infer) gives a rather one-sided but candid and shocking insight into the suffering of the victims of the Vietnam War. The ground floor is dedicated to the international anti war movement and I was surprised to see just how many countries spoke out in protest. 

The iconic image of the ‘Napalm Girl’

The displays, however, became increasingly more distressing and by the time I arrived at the third floor, a gallery dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange chemical warfare, I embarrassingly burst into tears and sobbed in the middle of the room. I was ready to run by the time we reached the exhibits outside – an array of torture devices such as guillotines and the ‘tiger cages’ used to house Viet Cong prisoners in the French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Hideous. After months and months of spiritual development, raising my own energetic vibration and connecting to the universal source of divine love, I was shocked and horrified to witness the worst of what man is capable of inflicting on man. Later, when I went to bed I was beset with flashbacks and nightmares of the horrific images that I had seen. 

Prayers in the pagodas of Cholon

A more civilised afternoon was spent exploring the colourful Chinese pagodas around Cholon, seeing an exhausting array of temples including one dedicated to the goddess of fertility (we both prayed that one day I will have babies!) We also enjoyed channelling 007… “we’ve been expecting you, Mr. Bond” in the marvellously retro and shagadelic Reunification Palace. This was the home of the South Vietnamese president and site of the end of the war when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates during the fall of Saigon. Sandra and I both used to work together in the broadcasting industry and we thought our colleagues would like the various bits of transmission equipment on display in the basement. 

Mosquito coils in the Chinese pagodas in Cholon 
Retro vibes in Reunification Palace

We took an obligatory tour out to see the Mekong Delta where we got to see the process of making rice papers and sweets, take a boat trip along the river and listen to traditional Vietnamese music. However, the whole experience was marred by the fact that it completely lacked authenticity, instead feeling as if we were on a souvenir-purchasing conveyor belt, hastily packed from one sales opportunity to the next.

Messing about on the Mekong
The birthday girl – looking fabulous as always

It happened to be Sandra’s birthday (52 and fabulous – you would never be able to tell) during her time with me in Vietnam and we certainly celebrated in style. We were awakened by one of the hotel staff bringing in a birthday breakfast of champagne and cake. After polishing this off we arrived at our cooking class at Hoa Tuc Restaurant rather tipsy. Still, being domestic goddesses, we managed to rustle up cha gio sai (fried Saigon spring rolls with traditional nuoc mam dipping sauce), goi ga bap chuoi (shredded banana blossoms salad with chicken, peanuts and deep fried shallots-  presented in a banana leaf) and, of course pho-bo the traditional Vietnamese dish of beef noodles soup. Delicious – even though I say say myself! We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool before yet more champagne and cake…high tea in our hotel room which started out gracefully then ended with both of us dancing around to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ in the bathroom in our bikinis. Oh dear.

Playing Nigella in Hoa Tuc cookery class
Here’s one I made earlier – Goi ga bap chuoi 

One of the ‘must dos’ in Saigon is to try out one of it’s many rooftop bars and no expense was spared on Sandra’s birthday. Although we had previously enjoyed a ‘sundowner’ at the much-vaunted Rex Hotel (famous hack hangout, back in the day), it paled in comparison with the Chill Sky Bar located on the 26th floor of the AB financial Tower. There we quaffed eye wateringly expensive margaritas (Sandra’s signature cocktail) but it was undoubtedly worth it for the stunning aerial view over the whole of Saigon whose flat topography means that you can enjoy a glittering vista for miles around. A perfect spot to dance the night away.

Celebrating in style at the Chill Skybar

Tea party in the bath, anyone?

After all that eating, drinking and sightseeing we needed a rest so decamped from our beautiful room at Legend to go and relax on the beach in Mui Ne for a few days. On arrival at the leafy, boutique Mia Resort we were treated to chilled green tea served in beautiful porcelain cups. A tranquil few days was spent relaxing by the pool, sunbathing on the pristine white sand beach and enjoying treatments in the spa. We did venture out once or twice but found that none of the restaurants matched up to the excellence (or the seabass) of the Mia restaurant – and with everything else at our fingertips, why would we leave? After several days of beach relaxation, Sandra departed for London and I reluctantly left behind our fabulous 4 star resort to return to a bunk bed in a 4 bed dormitory at Saigon Youth Hostel. Well, what comes up must come down, I suppose. Asceticism would follow the decadence of the previous fortnight.. Or so I thought…

The pristine beach at Mia resort, Mui Ne

*Thanks, Sandy P, for the holiday of a lifetime and all your kindness, generosity and support with my future travel decision-making and the Edventure Nepal campaign fundraiser