Danube – Vietnam

Have you ever seen those tourists fall out of a kayak on a river boat cruise? You’re not a traveller until you’ve joined the club of embarrassment at falling in the Mekong River, in plain sight, with, at the very least, one-hundred spectators. Yes, that was me, adventurer Ben in all of my glory.

FullSizeRender-26Okay, for the backstory. It was my second day on a Mekong River tour in Vietnam. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get on the trip given I am bit of a business nerd and wanted to learn more about the agricultural importance of the Mekong. The tour wouldn’t be for everyone, it goes through the culture of rice farm families, small industrial towns, the history of the Mekong and the future prospects of the different areas.

The more entertaining, and partially active, part of the trip is the kayaking in the Mekong. I say partially because, as we are all lazy travellers, the locals paddle the boats and tourists (of all shapes and sizes) hop in the kayaks in two’s and three’s.1524635_10152121316466047_912443208_n

Qui (from my featured image), my guide for the kayak ride was a former rice farmer-turned kayak extraordinaire. She put an effort into talking to people and telling them as much of the interesting side of the Mekong as possible. Qui enjoyed speaking gossip stories of which farmer’s wife was cheating and which farmer’s kids are being kept out of their parent’s will. At one point, she started speaking about the importance of the bamboo that grows along the Mekong’s shoreline. It creates a fine valuable paper and can be picked from the water. Qui motioned for me to grab some of the leaves to feel their texture. Bad mistake. I reached to the side, carefully, and outstretched to the tree. Before I knew it I was wading through the dirty coffee-like water to get back into the boat. Thanks Qui.

From that experience, I can now tell you I am closer than many other tourists to the Mekong, and I think I gave a good story for all of the other tourists to tell.

If I learnt anything out of that, it is to make sure you always take a dry-bag with you as my camera, phone and wallet remained dry, while the rest of me was covered in Vietnam’s pride.

Soho – Ho Chi Minh

My first visit to Vietnam was only supposed to be for a week. I had never really researched much into Vietnam. I was blind with assumptions about it being another South-East Asian country, specifically Ho Chi Minh. I had family living there at the time who hated travel, asian countries and any type of asian food – so I was tainted with the view of a cynic. Taking those words on board, on my third day in Ho Chi Minh, I cancelled my flight and ended up staying there for five weeks.

Dried shrimp in the Saigon markets

Ho Chi Minh surprised me a lot. Yes, it still has that appeal that asian countries have, but Ho Chi is modern, trendy, chic and above all, classy. Of all of the places I have visited it is one of the few that I could actually live in for quite some time – which I later intend on doing.

I stayed in a hotel in Saigon at the time. I recommend staying in the centre as it is close access to everything. This proved handy for New Year’s Eve when getting anywhere was like trying to fight for room in a sardine tin. Vietnam’s environment wasn’t just a holiday

Saigon is a very romantic area. A lot of couples have their wedding photos taken out the front of the beautiful Saigon Post Office

place, it was a living place too. Locals lived in the city, had normal jobs, and went out to the restaurants, bars and clubs like everyone else. It was evident that there was a much larger industry at play than just that of tourism as was for places like Thailand and Malaysia.

From what locals have told me, Vietnam is still yet to hit its peak overseas market as there are more people travelling to Malaysia and Thailand. For one, I am supportive of this as it is nice to go where there are no hordes of tourists passing through. Many a time I had found myself being the only western person in a crowded street in Vietnam, which really starts to bring the essence of travelling to life, which is, to experience difference in its purest form.

Rather than visiting tourist sites in Ho Chi Minh, my time was spent exploring the city’s backstreet cafes, restaurants and bars. A lot of the places found through back alleys or tucked away down quiet streets are often the most booming for

Chinese buddhist joss house

their type. One of my favourites was L’usine, which for travellers, is very reminiscent, and could easily compete with, any upperclass western cafe. While roaming the streets, specifically in Saigon, the architecture has a very French influence given the former French colonisation of the area. Much of the city still has remnants of post-colonial influence and despite Vietnam’s ambition to separate itself from the stigma it still holds a strong presence in the city’s design and food as well. It’s not uncommon for a french patisserie to be located next to a noodle store all of which can be down the street from an amazing buddhist joss house.

Vietnamese coffee on condensed milk (cafe suda)

A warning to travellers, be careful when drinking the coffee as it is very good and highly addictive. The Vietnamese version of Starbucks, Trung Nguyen Coffee, is on every street in Saigon, however caters to a more modern coffee drinker. But the straight coffee with (carfay suda) or straight black coffee (carfay da) which is what most of the locals drink and it is divine. Most of the cafes I went to provided the slow filter and glass of ice for the coffee which gives you that ‘make it yourself’ experience. The other delight, and thankfully also the best if you are on a budget, is pho (noodle soup). This is served on most street corners and any local diners and is a staple diet for the locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.