My first trip to Asia, the one that made me fall in love with this part of the world. The shock of Ho Chi Min City's scooters; the unrivaled beauty of Ha Long Bay; the breathtaking landscapes in the northern mountains; the story that I return to every corner to remember all the evil that a war can? do; the Mekong, huge brown snake that fascinated me so much that I want to go up it, from the mouth to the source. The Vietnamese, chaotic and smiling, busy but always welcoming and ready to lend a hand.
Thanks to the stopover in Abu Dhabi, the flight to Ho Chi Minh City seems less long than expected despite the fact that we have been around for almost 24 hours, between time zones and a long wait in Fiumicino.
Is Saigon's 33 degrees full of humidity? and smog, thousands of scooters whizzing in every direction (in our opinion random) playing and trying to avoid every obstacle, from cars to the frightened tourist, and street vendors that pop up from every corner try to sell the most? variegated, from the colorful tropical fruit, to the spider in the frame to the poor ready turtle? alas? - to be cooked. Asia welcomes us with a din of lights and colors, deafening music, crazy traffic and smiles, lots of smiles.
Welcome to Saigon, or rather Ho chi Minh City, but also is the city? of mopeds ?, and -why? no-? the city? of those who live in their little shop and eat Bun Cha (rice noodles with pork and vegetables) on their little blue chairs? Call it what you want but this city? will leave you? with your mouth open and you will find yourself walking in a historical period not well identified between past and future, between ancient temples and ultramodern skyscrapers, where elderly ladies in typical clothes cook in the street to feed trendy young people with lots of Iphone in hand ( that maybe carry a couple of chickens on the scooter).
From the window I watch the landscape change into a very green and luxuriant countryside where the women are bent over the rice fields and never look up from under their cone-shaped hat; everywhere there are small temples in memory of the deceased loved ones that families always want to keep close to them.
To introduce us to Vietnamese culture? our guide Peter, whose real name? Khan but who as a child was called Meo so that? evil spirits did not take him away and whose surname could not be pronounced why? equal to that of the President.
We arrive in My Tho after stopping in a beautiful rest area with at least three outdoor restaurants, palm trees and a water lily garden and are greeted by a sweltering heat that marks the end of the rainy season. The Mekong looks truly majestic to our eyes, immense and incredibly brown, it flows slowly and silently, its people? shy and respectful but always with a nice smile on her face; aboard our junk we enter curiously in one of the arms of the delta, among coconut candy factories, tropical vegetation and fishermen's shacks among which the very humble abode of the rower appears who communicates with gestures that she has three children and points out to us proud a hut of mud and metal sheets. A cart takes us not far from the river to a restaurant where the specialties are served for lunch. restaurants based on rice and fish that we throw away? gladly with coconut wine and snake brandy.
We visit the Vinh Trang temple with its imposing white stone Buddha statues representing the past, present and future and take the opportunity to light some incense.
For dinner we opt for the Ngon restaurant in 160, Pasteur street, which I strongly recommend for the excellent quality-price ratio of the courses, the kindness of the staff and the original and clean environment with an open kitchen.
MY TRAVEL TIPS:
? We stayed at the two-star Saigon Europe & Spa hotel, nice and comfortable, with small but clean rooms, a great Vietnamese breakfast and a 10 and praise massage center (60 minute Vietnamese massage for only 14 $ and performed by expert hands and professional). The plus? surely the staff of a kindness and cordiality? incredible.
? Nobody respects traffic lights and precedence, n? they stop on the strips: advance slowly and at a steady pace? they will avoid you!
? In Saigon Square c ?? a covered clothing market: many pieces are fake but something good can be found. An example? The North Face padded jacket with tag and label (and yet we still doubt originality) for $ 60 negotiable.
I am in the heart of the Old Quarter of Hanoi where noises and smells come together in a chaotic and fascinating mix to which I am now getting used to. Have the last two days been like this? frenetic that with difficulty I focus on the sequence of things done, but I have to do it why? I don't want to miss even a moment of the emotions that this wonderful country is giving me.
Monday? we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels that wind along 250 km in the region north of Saigon built initially under French rule and expanded during the American conflict; the route takes place inside a wood where the deep tunnels are still visible and partially accessible. up to 10 meters which for years were the home, the hospital, the laboratories of 13.000 people considered rebels. Our guide? a nice guy who in turn spent his first two years of life in the tunnels? he illustrates the various tricks used by the Vietcong to trap American soldiers, the result of hardworking and ingenious minds willing to do anything to defend their lands. The shots that come from the polygon make me shiver as I try to understand in the most? discreet possible how today Vietnamese relate to Americans and how much weight does the war still have in the memories of those who are only a few years older? of me. And here's the answer:? Nobody wanted that war but? it just happened. There is no point in dwelling on the past, we must look ahead and love each other. We welcome tourists to show them how much? beautiful our country, not to receive mercy. And so we smile and try to have positivity? around us?. Chapeau.
And these smiles? What do I see in the eyes of the curious children on the street and the elderly sitting absorbed on their blue stools? I can not help but reciprocate.
On October 27th we arrive in Da Nang very late, after an hour and a half of transfer to the airport of Ho chi Minh City (to do only a few km!) And a Jet Star flight delayed by two hours. The Thai Binh III hotel in Hoi An is about 40 minutes away, on a road lined with luxury resorts and now deserted; ? nice enough and in the central area, except for the mold on the walls and the mega cockroach that roams the room?
At 8 we are already? beautiful perky for the meeting with our new guide, a shy but nice guy who first takes us to the still deserted market where we can experience a glimpse of reality? daily between stalls of fresh fish and meat exposed to the air and then to the beautiful beach of Hoi An for a refreshing halfway break. morning. We pedal for a few kilometers in the middle of the green rice fields, we meet many women at work who raise their hands in greeting and other locals happy to share their best English with us. Let's take a walk in the gardens to understand which herbs we will use in the cooking class that will reveal itself? be a fun experience and the lunch cooked by us will be really tasty! We greet our chef guide with a hug and we have to insist a little? to give him a tip: nobody expects it and even less asks for it but these guys are really professional and friendly and they deserve a few more dollars.
Hoi An? a lively town on the river illuminated by hundreds of lanterns that make the atmosphere magical; however, being crowded with tourists it sometimes reminds me of our localities? bathing establishments, complete with an evening market and a buttadentro on the doorstep of the premises.
MY TRAVEL TIPS:
? in Hoi An we dined at Morning Glory, reported by Lonely Planet. The restaurant ? very well known among tourists but offers a typical menu revisited in a modern way with some special additions from the chef. Staff ? very kind and the price even more: two single dishes, two beers and a Vietnamese vodka $ 14.
? for the excursions we have relied on Amovietnam which mainly organizes private tours also in Italian. Having chosen the option pi? economic group tour with an English-speaking guide, they leaned on Atravelmate: in both cases I found professionalism, friendliness and quick replies via email. On site you can buy excursions at a lower price but I always recommend to inquire on the Internet about reliability. agencies. Although we had booked the group tour there were only 4 of us during the visit to the Mekong, 11 to the Cu Chi tunnels and 2 to the cooking class, while we saw buses with 30-40 people from the well-known Sinh Tourist.
? Transfers to and from the airport can be booked with the hotel ($ 18-20 each way). Does the taxi cost a bit? less but beware of scams: in Hcmc for example there are only two official companies, Mai Linh and Vinasun. The others differ in a letter and can reserve nasty surprises.
At first glance there? seemed even more? chaotic of Hcmc with its maze of narrow streets of the Old Quarter that makes it a perfect destination for fans of Street food and reportage photography. In fact we take a pi? I can not immortalize a very different daily life from what we are used to: everyone here can? exercise an activity commercial and often the place of the shop and of the private home coincide. From the first light of dawn until sunset, the street cooks enchant passers-by with flavors and smells that allow the inhabitants to carry out their activities. favorite, and what? eat at any time and in every corner the specialties? of tradition, such as Bun Cha, Pho and a thousand other variations of soups, noodles and rolls. The Vietnamese? and in particular the inhabitants of Hanoi? they love to spend their time on the street chatting, sipping a Ca Phe (a coffee obtained from the? fall? of the blend that can be enjoyed cold with ice or hot with milk) or a Bia Hoi (a super cheap beer that you can find in the local restaurants starting at $ 0,25) obviously perched on the usual blue stools.
I have the impression that Hanoi has not yet been attacked by mass tourism and cultural roots are strongly perceived in a mix of traditions and modernity. that makes the city? unique and genuinely true. Young people on mopeds meet on the street while the more? seniors continue their chores on the sidewalks but everyone has time for a sincere smile and a greeting.
Today we meet Thu, a university student who works as a voluntary guide to practice the Italian language; Hello Vietnam? a non-profit association that I highly recommend contacting why? the girls are very nice, as well as well prepared and connoisseurs of the city. We visit the Ethnographic Museum which is located a bit? outside the center (15 min by taxi cost $ 4):? very interesting as it explains the life of some of the 50 ethnic groups that inhabit the country; also deserves the external part where huts and stilts are reproduced.
Then we move to the famous Temple of Literature which was the first university? in Vietnam in the distant 1076. The structure? composed of courtyards, ponds and statues and is definitely worth a visit.
Our walk ends at sunset on the shores of Lake Kiem.
MY TRAVEL TIPS
? to cross the road you have to arm yourself with patience and courage: proceed slowly and never stop abruptly, the scooters proceed at speed? constant and they will avoid you. IS? incredible the quantity? of motorcycles and vehicles moving in all directions seemingly nonsense, but I've never seen an accident.
? Hanoi must be lived, not seen. Take some time to stroll through the streets of the old quarter, whose names refer to the type of goods sold. Get lost in the alleys, talk to people, play with the children.
? We stayed at Hanoi Sky Hotel which I highly recommend for its location (10 minutes from the Old Quarter and Kiem Lake), for the excellent cleanliness, for the large and bright rooms and for the exquisite and very kind staff!
Halong Bay was one of the most popular places. I wanted to see absolutely. We booked the Viola Cruise on Booking.com and organized the pick up at the hotel. The street ? long and bumpy and we arrive at the port after 4 hours of travel. There are dozens of boats, agencies and companies that organize stays from 1 to 7 nights, routes and activities. they are always the same but does the quality change? of the boat and the services offered on board.
After a good lunch we visit the floating village of Vung Vieng by kayak where there are now few fishermen left compared to the past and we stop at Ti Top beach. From here start the 400 steps that lead to the top of the promontory from which you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the bay (arm yourself with plenty of breath if you don't want to risk dying halfway down the ramp like me).
Upon returning to the boat, an aperitif in music and a delicious imperial dinner await us. Does the presence of dozens of moored boats ruin a bit? the view however there are many moments during the navigation to enjoy this magical place alone.
The following day - after the 06:00 Tai Chi class which we obviously don't do why? we are fine under the blankets - we visit the wonderful Surprise cave: the humid heat and the crowds are unbearable but the particular and colorful scenery of the cave? fulfilling.
We return to the boat for a quick lunch and return to the port, where the bus to Hanoi awaits us.
At the hotel we meet Thuy, another very nice student who guides us through the streets of the city. in a Street food tour with all the trimmings! Finally with an interpreter on hand we venture into tiny local restaurants (including those on the sidewalks) and try all sorts of culinary delights.
I must say that in Vietnam we have always eaten very well: the traditional dishes are tasty and full of flavor (with the exception of the terrible coriander that appears surprisingly in many dishes).
Thuy? really nice, it tells us a lot about Vietnamese life and culture.
This morning we leave with Thuy for Bat Trang, a pottery village 30 minutes from Hanoi where you can visit the artisan workshops and buy wonderful tea sets or other decorative items. After the tropical storm that floods even the bus we go back to the city? and we retrieve the backpacks to go and take the train to Lao Cai. The station looks like an old disused warehouse and c ?? a little? confusion for the conversion of vouchers into tickets but we soon get on our carriage.
After a picturesque journey on a 70s train bouncing continuously on beds as hard as marble we arrive in Lao Cai, where we wait 3 hours to take the bus to Bac Ha. Tired and hungry, we curl up on the bus and observe the terraced rice fields from the window, the children carrying the oxen to pasture and the inevitable scooters loaded with all sorts of materials. Bac Ha Sunday market? a lively and colorful place where women of the H? mong ethnic group meet to sell and buy clothes, vegetables, meat and animals, regardless of the curious tourists who observe and photograph them. On the way we stop to visit a very small village of houses made of mud and bamboo. with asbestos roof: the furniture? almost? non-existent and the tools of everyday life are rudimentary. Around a large hearth, a man is making rice wine while a boy of about two happily rolls in the ashes. Although these people are very poor they never ask for alms, rather they try to sell their very beautiful handicrafts. If by chance you pass this way, bring some toys, candies or warm clothes, why? winter can be very rigid. Before arriving in Sapa we make another stop in Lao Cai on the border with China.
After a good sleep at the Fansipan we meet our guide H? Mong, a petite 23-year-old girl who accompanies us? together with a large group of other women in traditional clothing and with their babies swaddled on their backs? in a medium-easy trek of 5 hours through steep and muddy paths among the terraced rice fields. The women seem shy and reserved but they ask a lot of questions in their best English and I don't want to think that all of their interest is just because? at the end of the journey they try to sell you all the goods they brought in the pannier ?.
After lunch we continue on the path meeting the Muong tribe whose women wear white and red clothes and are less insistent in selling their products. Back in Sapa we take a shower at the tourist office where we left our backpacks and take a tour of the village to buy some? of The North Face clothing at ridiculous prices.
MY TRAVEL TIPS:
? The goods sold in Vietnam are not? 100% original: for example, Goretex products are produced in the real factory however the parent company d? supplied labels and anything else for the assembly of the pieces that may not be original but with brand tags. Furthermore, the proximity of China favors the? Tarot? since Vietnamese do not need a visa if they stay in the country less than 24 hours.
After a better night train trip than the way but still shaky we reach the airport of Hanoi for the flight to Phu Quoc. The island has a size of 574kmq and is located in the Sea of Thailand off the Vietnamese west coast. fringed with white beaches and lush vegetation. The resort we have chosen is called Phu Van Resort and? located in Long Beach where hotels and guesthouses follow one another on the beach. I think it is not the best time to visit the island why? the sea ? full of small cylindrical medusettes.
We rented a moped for $ 10 and started exploring the southern part of the island, passing through Duong Dong, the largest village. large, which does not offer much apart from a Night Market where to eat fresh fish. We visit the Suoi Tranh waterfalls (admission about $ 1) which can be reached after a short walk in the woods: the waterfalls are nothing exceptional but we regenerate ourselves with a dip in the fresh water. The second stage? Bai Sao beach, reachable by 10 minutes of dirt road (complete with volcanic holes and pools?); ? a wild beach with just a couple of restaurants and water? a little? move. Here we do not find smiles and friendliness? to which we were accustomed by now (actually we will have this feeling all over the island) and then we head towards the fishing village of An Thoi where we wander around for a while. among the people and we realize the poverty? where they live, although Phu Quoc is becoming a very popular tourist destination for Westerners (as evidenced by the? eco monsters? that sprout like mushrooms from the vegetation). The next stop includes a visit to the Nhatu Phu Quoc prison-lager, built by the French in the late 40s but used during the American war to imprison and torture the "communist rebels". The explanatory panels give a perfect idea of the barbarism to which the prisoners were subjected. Is it definitely worthwhile to better understand a piece of history of which you do not yet know enough and moreover the entrance? free. With sadness in our eyes we get back on the road and take a road that according to the map should lead us to the resort but there are puddles so? deep that we risk getting bogged down! We proceed at a walking pace for 10 minutes but we give up when we arrive at an intersection without signs and resume the main road. The evening ? despite the tropical storm that shows no sign of stopping? we have dinner at Dinh Cau Market with fresh fish cooked at the moment.
Phu Quoc? famous for pearls but we were unable to visit any farms; we have seen them for sale all over the place but we have doubted their authenticity.
Today the sky doesn't bode well and we commute from the pool to the veranda, where? beer in hand and a rocking chair? we enjoy our one day of true relaxation in two weeks.
I also indulge in 60 minutes of amazing Vietnamese massage for only $ 15.
For dinner we opt for a little place on the beach (Lien Hiep Thanh, restaurant of the homonymous guest house that I highly recommend for the quality of the food, the very low prices and the friendliness of the staff) where they serve us a very tasty grilled barracuda.
An old twin engine that emits sinister noises brings us back to the mainland and to tell the truth? we are very happy to return to Saigon in the first hotel we stayed in. Here they welcome us with open arms with smiles and a thousand questions about our trip. We dedicate the day to buying souvenirs and indulge in the latest fresh Bia Hoi.
When you are queuing for check-in waiting for the return flight, do you always feel a bit? bewildered and listless, thinking about it? that you have experienced and the countless hours of flying that await you. Do I feel a bit? I'm anxious when my backpack does not pass the check (it seems they wanted to verify that the coffee wasn't really anything else) but luckily everything is resolved quickly.
We take off at about 19pm. I look at Saigon from above and down I think about when I can? land here again.