Well, we survived the first overnight train. I think survived is a key word. Crammed into a four berth ‘first-class’ carriage, it was definitely not the best night’s sleep either of us has ever had. However, it was an efficient use of time in terms of travel. Also, cheap.
We made it to Xi’an around seven in the morning, and our hostel owner awaited us with two bus tickets and a cheery smile. Way too cheery for two people who’d just spend fourteen hours on a train, but here we are…
All we knew about Xi’an coming in was that we wanted to see the Muslim Quarter and the Terracotta Warriors. After dumping our backpacks at the hostel, we headed out for a walk to the Muslim Quarter. It was about fifteen minutes from our hostel and it was absolutely incredible. Bustling markets with every kind of Middle Eastern and Chinese food you can imagine (including dried mango – we invested in $20 worth that lasted us until after the end of our trip). Kids and dogs ran everywhere underfoot and we were completely overwhelmed with what we should eat, buy and see.
That afternoon we went to climb the Bell Tower where we were treated to a surprise and very enthusiastically executed drumming show. Ears ringing, we decided that a stop off at the local Starbucks wouldn’t go astray. Tom was pursued by several young children who wanted to practice their English and take photos with him, a regular occurrence for him in China.
The next day we were off to see the Terracotta Warriors. Our hostel was kind enough to provide us with a Chinese interpretation of a European breakfast – bread, a slice of cheese and some strawberry jam. It was an interesting way to start the day. It’s about an hour and a half out to the site where the warriors are currently being excavated so we read and slept. A common theme on our travels around China.
There’s actually three areas of excavation happening out at the site. The Terracotta Warriors are believed to be guarding the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It’s quite incredible to walk around the pits and see the archaeologists excavating in front of your eyes, an experience you don’t get very often as a tourist. Our very enthusiastic tour guide insisted on a group photo at the end and you can see the results below.
Also, for those who were fortunate enough to study Chinese using the New Practical Chinese Reader, I finally put into practice the most useless sentence we ever learned… yes, I visited the Terracotta Warriors and I bought a postcard. And this ends our Xi’an adventures. We did have to invest in face masks, the air was really, really bad and both of us were coughing quite a lot by the end. Onwards to Nanjing!
Where we stayed:
HangTang Inn Hostel – 3/5 stars. This hostel had a really great common area downstairs as well as decent food and a happy hour. Also, they met us at the train station to guide us back to the hostel which was really nice. Downside, the rooms weren’t well ventilated so if you had a shower the whole dorm tended to get a bit steamy. Luckily it was only the two of us in our room for the second night.
Terracotta Warriors – we did our hostel tour but Viator also has some good options, as do Urban Adventures.
Beijing is an incredible city. In one place, you feel the concrete might of the Chinese government next to the towering skyscrapers of modern China, all surrounded by a healthy dose of smog. Our first activity in Beijing was to try and orient ourselves with the Forbidden City. After walking several kilometres, we found the river that outlines the Forbidden City. Thinking that we were being supremely clever and avoiding the crowds, we walked in the back gate expecting to be able to walk through and end up in Tiananmen Square (see below for an artistic rendition of our walk). Turns out, it only allows for one-way traffic flows… guess the crowds flow through from the front for a reason. So we had to backtrack all the way back out and around to the front to see Tiananmen Square. That was A LOT of walking.
To try and give ourselves a dose of local culture and stuff, we had booked in to an Urban Adventures ‘foodie walk’ that night. Apart from the thousand year old eggs and the donkey burger, all of the food was fairly standard Chinese food, similar to what you’d get here in Australia. The donkey burger was… interesting, sort of a cross between veal and beef. Probably wouldn’t eat it again but don’t regret trying it. For the cost, we ate like kings and had to take half the food home (our tour guide was most disappointed, we did explain that we’re not accustomed to five full meals in an hour but I don’t think she really understood…). She also gave us lots of fun facts about Beijing. For example, the traditional ‘hutongs’ that are still inhabited by many residents don’t actually have bathrooms built in to the houses. Residents who live in these alleyways usually share a public bathroom between a street. Luckily our hostel had bathrooms despite being in a hutong!
The next day we had booked in for a Great Wall tour with our hostel. It’s about a two hour drive out to the section of the Wall that we visited, so we had to leave around 7am to get there bright and early. The Wall was spectacular, it looked exactly like all of the photos that you see and it was amazing to walk on something that’s so ancient. It’s built on top of a mountain, which is an aspect you don’t really think about until you get there and realise exactly how high up it is. Tom walked all the way to the end checkpoint which is right at the top of the mountain.
The final day in Beijing we went to see Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum and the China Museum. Turns out the museum is all in Chinese so not so great for tourists… but it was a weird and wonderful experience all the same with lots of information about China’s space program and defence capability. Then it was on to the first overnight train and Xi’an!
Sometimes in life, fate strikes and it become clear that certain things were just meant to happen.
This trip to China was one of those moments.
My little brother (Tom) and I had been planning an end-of-HSC backpacking trip around China since June. We’d booked almost everything, timed it to be across the Schoolies period and were pretty much ready to go.
Vietnam has got to be one of the most incredible countries on earth.
One minute you’re walking through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) surrounded by a whirlwind of colour, noise and people, assaulted by the smell of street food on every corner, ducking and weaving in and out of traffic. The next you’re floating down a river watching the locals fish from their junk boats, drinking from coconuts and enjoying the tranquil water lapping against the boat.
Vietnam is a country of extreme wealth and extreme poverty all in the same street, filled with people who are still suffering from the effects of the Vietnam War but are intensely proud of their country and how far they’ve come.
Mum and I spent two weeks experiencing everything Vietnam had to offer – from the food, to the custom made clothes, street markets, overnight trains and everything in between. I also learned that Mum is an excellent photographer particularly when it comes to candid pictures you can actually use on Instagram. Definitely a travel buddy worth keeping around. Anyway, here’s a quick wrap of some of our experiences.
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
What a place. This was my second time in Saigon and I tried to describe it to Mum before we landed but there is just no way to prepare someone for the chaos and cacophony of Ho Chi Minh City.
It is singlehandedly the craziest but also most fun place you will ever visit. It’s the ultimate Asian city in that you see the glitz and glamour of it – the rooftop bars, opera, high culture – but there’s also intense poverty, street markets and the most death-defying traffic you will ever cross through.
We spent our first night at the Opera House watching what was sold to us as the best Vietnamese show you will ever see. Apparently this particular show toured the world. It was… strange. At one point they were tossing logs across the stage, the next second they were leaping over each other in frog suits. It does, however, rank slightly higher than Beijing Opera in my list of things I would consider sitting through again.
The next day was a bus ride out to the Mekong Delta to see some local industries – fishing, coconut growing, snake whiskey producing – the list is long. It was really interesting to see some of the ways that the locals use the river as their source of food and revenue.
After a full day on the river we headed back to Saigon to pack up and move on to our next destination, Hoi An.
Hoi An has singlehandedly got to be one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It has the most beautiful old quarter you’ll ever see and is known as being the place to get clothes made (which we took full advantage of). It’s also close to the sea and has some incredible beaches to relax on if the mood takes you.
Mum and I, being the intrepid travellers that we are, decided instead to take a day trip out to the famous My Son Temples which are Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat.
The My Son Temples are a set of ruined temples about an hour outside of Hoi An. They think that there is around seventy temples at the site but the government have only uncovered around ten, due to lack of resources. The most fascinating thing about the temples is that you can actually see giant bomb craters everywhere from the Vietnam War.
Our tour guide also took us to a local family for lunch where we got to make our own rice cakes. They eat rice cakes with just a soy sauce and chilli mixture and I have to say it was delicious. Somewhere in the archives is actual footage of me successfully cooking a rice cake but I’m saving that for a later date.
Speaking of cooking, we also took a traditional Vietnamese cooking class which was really cool – it was interesting to see how simple the food actually is. Yes, I cooked and no, I didn’t burn anything. It was a successful attempt all round. Proof below.
After an action packed two days in Hoi An, which involved at least four trips to the same coffee shop for coffee, we were off to our next city, Hue.
Hue was a former imperial capital of Vietnam. It’s most famous for the walled citadel that miraculously survived the carnage of the Vietnam War, and it’s also the location where the infamous Tet Offensive happened. You can actually see the bullet holes in the wall where the Tet Offensive occurred.
We started our time in Hue with, of course, lunch at a local restaurant. I had the most amazing fried rice I think I’ve ever eaten and am yet to successfully recreate, Mum had spring rolls, all washed down with the usual beer (I swear that’s all they drink in Vietnam). We then jumped on some cyclos to head to the citadel and wander around all afternoon.
After a peaceful sunset river cruise featuring more beer, we headed back to have dinner with a local Vietnamese family. They were so incredible – they spent the night talking to us about life in Vietnam and their family. The eldest son went to university to study English and ended up getting a job working in a hotel which is considered a very important and high ranking job. It’s fascinating to see the cultural differences like this between Australia and Vietnam.
They were also telling us that school is compulsory until the end of primary school but it’s also expensive – around $3000 USD a year. So many children still don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford it. This particular family supplements their income by having foreigners like us over for dinner.
I love doing things like this when I travel – getting to experience local culture and hear from them about their lives and what they do. However it can also be one of the most confronting things about travelling as you hear and experience how much harder life is for people in some of these countries.
Anyway, after two beautiful days in Hue it was time to jump on an overnight train to the final destination of our trip, Hanoi.
Hanoi is the polar opposite to Ho Chi Minh City in many ways. Whilst also a big city, it’s much calmer feeling and in many ways the more beautiful of the two capitals.
One of my favourite things about Hanoi is its proximity to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a World Heritage Site because of its unique limestone cliffs and green water. We were lucky enough to go on a boat and spend a night out on the bay, which is harder than it seems – the government restricts how many boats can be out on the bay at any one time and getting a spot can be easier said than done. Interestingly they also mandate that all the boats have to be painted white to blend in with the cliffs.
After a night out on the water and some questionable karaoke with our fellow shipmates, we were back in Hanoi for another two days. We really had the full Hanoi experience – watched the footy grand final in an Irish bar with the local expats, explored the Hanoi Hilton where American soldiers were imprisoned during the war, wandered around the lake, had ice cream – it was a busy two days.
To end our time in Hanoi we had dinner at KOTO, a restaurant where street children are taught cooking and service skills so that they can get paid work. Koto stands for ‘Know One, Tell One’ – the philosophy dates back to the Vietnam War when the locals started picking up some English language skills. The idea is that you learn one word and teach one word to someone else every day so that everyone learns and passes on knowledge together. KOTO is an incredible foundation who have supported hundreds of children to get off the streets and into paid work.
By this point we were nearing the end of our trip and starting to get tired so it was nice to spend some time chilling out in Hanoi before going back to Saigon for two days.
Finally, we ended up back in Saigon for two days for some more cultural/questionable operatic experiences. This time we’d booked ourselves in to stay at the Intercontinental as I had a feeling that by this point of the trip we’d be itching for a comfy bed and a decent shower (which turned out to be very accurate).
We took a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, used by the Viet Cong in the war to move around underground without the American soldiers knowing. We got to walk/crawl through some of the tunnels which was fun, albeit slightly claustrophobic as the tunnels are designed for a tiny Vietnamese person.
That night we went on a street food tour run by Urban Adventures – it was really cool to be taken around by a local person to the street food markets. We had some incredible food that I don’t even know the name of but boy, was it delicious.
For our final day we went to the War Remnants Museum which I remembered as being one of the standout experiences of my first trip to Vietnam. And it was just as good the second time. The museum is basically the entire collection of war photography and memorabilia in one place and it’s absolutely incredible. They have photos of every aspect of the war – descendants of people hit by Agent Orange, fighting in the streets and jungle, features of the different war photographers from different nations. They also have some very confronting displays, the one that has always stuck in my head is the embalmed foetuses who died in utero as a result of their mother being hit by Agent Orange in the war.
Anyway, that was the end of our trip . We spent six hours at the airport when our plane was delayed, but by that point we were truly embracing the South-East Asian philosophy of ‘island time’ – after all, everything over there is ‘same same but different’.
Tl;dr: would highly recommend Vietnam. If you have any questions hit me up, been there twice and it’s an incredible country!
So in amongst all the coming home, finding a job stuff I never finished blogging about my round the world adventures from summer last year. I spent nearly 3 months backpacking around the world over my summer break (winter for all of you in Aus) – went to a heap of countries, most of which I’ve seen before but hit up some new cities along the way. Broke my ankle, missed some trains, came down with a 42 degree temperature BUT also got to see some amazing places and tbh would do it all again this year if I could. Continue reading “Backpacking round the world”→
Off to the second destination on our Vietnam itinerary – Nha Trang, the resort town located in the south of Vietnam. Sandy coastlines and turquoise beaches greeted us as we stepped off the aeroplane ready for some beach time and one of the highlights of the Vietnam trip – Funky Monkey boat cruise! Continue reading “Funky Monkey in Nha Trang”→
Phew. We’re finally at the halfway point of my South East Asian adventure and boy has it been an incredible two weeks. New experiences, new countries and best of all some amazing new people. Sadly we had to say goodbye to about half our group in the morning who weren’t doing the Vietnam half of the trip. I’m going to break Vietnam up into a few posts because it was nearly two weeks of my trip and I think it’s earned the right to a couple of posts. Continue reading “Good Morning Vietnam!”→