During these recessionary times, many of us have no choice but to differentiate between our "needs" and "wants." As someone who scrimped and saved his entire life life to be able to travel the glorious globe's greatest nations for a lengthy period, I was delighted and appreciative of the fact that Vietnam more than fulfilled my needs, wants, and desires! This blog entry aims to depict a handful of my unforgettable experiences over a twenty-eight day period in one of my favourite countries. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride as much as I did!
I commenced my varied Vietnamese voyage in Hanoi, a city in the north of the country. History buffs like myself love this place as here the country's history is palpable. At Hoa La Prison, Vietnamese Revolutionaries (who were seeking independence from France in the 1950s) and later American pilots (captured during the conflict in the 1960s) were held. Among the exhibits, there are a guillotine used by the French as well as shackles and a number of other tools used to inflict barbarous torture and subsequently execute Vietnamese Revolutionaries. Following a pit-stop at a bar (which serves pints for 25 Cents!) I made my way to the Vietnamese Military History Museum where one can view aircraft, weaponry, transport vehicles, and uniforms which have been preserved from the Vietnam War.
Sapa is a small town surrounded by countless rice terraces and mountains. In search for fresh air and adventure, I opted for a two night and three day hike in this beautiful landscape. Unlike previous treks, on this occasion, I was accompanied by just my guide Pang. Thick fog and blinding rain made walking challenging and difficult conditions but eventually the sun appeared as did breathtaking views and vistas. Fortunately both night's accommodation with local families provided a bed, a shower with hot water, delicious food, and rice wine which made vodka taste like water and therefore put a few additional hairs on my chest!
Ha Long Bay was the next destination for this amateur blogger and this area has been the setting for a number of James Bond Films including Tomorrow Never Dies and The Man with the Golden Gun. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is estimated that at least 3000 islands are located within this vast area. It is best explored by boat and I was delighted when I boarded as I was informed that I was to receive an upgrade to a suite which included a Jacuzzi! The hospitality shown by staff and wonderful food were both unbeatable but trying out the Jacuzzi was the highlight of this excursion for me! The following night was spent with a barbecue along with fellow backpackers on the beach overlooking the South China Sea before I retired to my own private bungalow.
A four hour bus ride returned our group to Hanoi and within the hour, I had commenced an 18 hour bus journey to Hoi An, another city in the middle of the country. During this time, I wrote, read, and slept to occupy the time. Hoi An is the food capital of Vietnam and whilst there I consumed pancakes stuffed with shrimp and pork, and pork inserted with squid served on a bed of sugar cane. I also learned how to create other delicacies including spring rolls and Beef Pho at a cookery school on a secluded island that was only only accessible by boat. Also in Hoi An, I visited the Old Quarter which included temples ornately decorated with majestic Buddhas and old houses lavishly furnished with exquisite furniture and antiques which you wouldn't find in Ikea to put it that way!
Another night bus and another city for Christmas time. This time it was Nha Trang a beach resort frequented by Russians but my hostel was as cosmopolitan as any meeting of the United Nations or the E.U. combined. My €5 a night dorm included free breakfast, free beer for one hour every night, and free Aloe Vera willingly applied to sun kissed (politically correct term for sunburnt) backpackers! Within a few hours of arrival at the hostel, I was on the way to a Mud Bath Spa and this experience relaxed, relieved, and released tension from my aching bones and muscles. Christmas Day was spent on the beach where I swam, read and took selfies in the water. Upon returning to the hostel, I uploaded these selfies on my Facebook page and to date they have received 88 likes! I subsequently Skyped my family and was informed that in the my absence and the absence of my appetite they were having Venison for Christmas dinner! Following a lengthy conversation, I accompanied my roommates to a local eatery where we tucked into.... Turkey and Ham with all the trimmings! No pudding or cake but I will make up for that in 2016!!
I then took another night bus from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh also known as Saigon! The man beside snored the entire journey destroying any of my attempts to sleep. Sights in this city were heavily influenced by the French Occupation and these included the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Offfice (which was designed by Gustav Eiffel who had already designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris). I also explored the War Remnants Museum which depicted the short and long term effects of the conflict between the United States and the Vietnamese. Horrifying images included those of areas obliterated by America such as the village of My Lai and people who continue to be effects by the use of a harmful gas called Agent Orange utilized by American Forces and has created countless birth defects and abnormalities.
A three day boat trip from Ho Chi Minh to the Vietnamese/Cambodian border on the Mekong Border concluded my visit to the country. En-route, we explored the creation of honey at a a bee farm, coconut candy at a factory, and rice paper in a small workshop. We also witnessed villagers and farmers selling and trading their produce at floating markets as well as fishermen catching fish in the same manner as their forefathers in traditional wooden boats and using simple nets. New Year's Eve was spent in a home stay with a local family and due to sheer exhaustion my fellow travelers and I were all in bed before midnight.
Prior to closing my eyes, for the final time in 2015, I reflected on the year that had almost elapsed. Within the past 12 months, I had defined the expectations of a person with Dyspraxia on a number of fronts: I had passed my driving test first time, (my specialists had once believed that it would be highly unlikely that I would be able to drive due my peripheral vision not meeting the required standard), I had become a Toastmaster Champion at my beloved Dundalk Club after coming second or third on six occasions, and I had visited 7 countries. My father interrupted my reflection by sending a text with the words "Good Luck in 2016- if it's nearly as good as 2015, you'll do really well!". I knew he was right and replied a message to that effect but I also realised that on New Year's Day, I would arrive in a new country, Cambodia, and if it was nearly as good as Vietnam, it too would be doing very well!!
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