Saturday, 28 May 2011

Southern Laos - The Most Relaxed Place on Earth

Once again, it's been a while.

I know how much you crave these tardy blog posts, so I've sat myself down at a computer in Cambodia and started with the catch-up. No, I'm no longer in Laos. But I will be typing up a blog post about everything I have yet to blog about in Laos. I've only been in Cambodia for 20 hours so I can hardly add anything of worth.

I believe I left you all (waiting with baited breath, no doubt) about a week ago in Vientiane. So, here begins my catch-up, or rather - yours.

Wat Mixay, Vientiane
Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, home to only 300 000 people, is one of the smaller cities in Southeast Asia. It is a beautiful city, but for some reason I didn't really like it. It lacks the charm inherent to Luang Prabang and it isn't nearly alive enough to be anything like Saigon. Sadly this makes it fall somewhere in the middle, a bit of a grey zone. The French influence is very apparent and you can't help but wonder, when wandering, if Vientiane is an Asian city trying hard to be French or a French city striving to be Asian. It was a puzzling phenomenon to say the least. Next to a French-style bakery one can find a mobile shop selling distinctly Asian dishes, my favourite being deep-fried mango (Yes, they have that and yes, it is amazing).

Haw Pha Khaw museum
Schizophrenic though it may be, Vientiane had a lot on offer in the sightseeing department. Being a tourist it was my obligation to see sights and so I did. I donned my finest farang tourist gear and headed out, taking photos like a Japanese tourist. My first stop was at an old wat which had been converted into a museum, housing over a thousand buddha images. The museum building was, for me, more interesting than the buddha images. It was a fantastic, old wat with beautifully adorned windows and doors and a flowing garden out front.

After the museum, I did a quick hop across the road to Wat Sisaket, the oldest wat in Vientiane. It was, sadly, just another bleeding wat. I've seen so many. It did have a 'library' which used to contain buddhist scripture. The scripture has long since been removed, and the library (which is nothing more than a cramped room) has been gathering layers of dust over the years. The library is outside the main wat compound, around a corner and virtually no tourists bother to go there as it isn't immediately visible. It was by chance that I stumbled into it on my way out. The reason I was heading out was the Arc de Triomphe. Vientiane has one. An Asian version of the French monument, actually called Patuxai. It is apparently a few metres taller than the actual Arc de Triomphe, which is typically Asian. Perhaps you're starting to understand why I thought Vientiane was schizo... The views from the top of Patuxai are the best on offer in Vientiane. A full 360 degree view of the city is gifted to all people who climb the seven stories to reach it. And the view truly is fantastic. The city unfolds around you, monuments can be spied off in the distance and the buzz of cars drifts up to you from the main boulevard.

Patuxai, Asia's Arc de Triomphe
I left Vientiane behind after just 2 days. I left on a night bus to Pakse. My plan was originally to spend a day in Pakse and then head to Champasak the next day. It was early morning when I arrived in Pakse and I knew that buses and sawng thaew (converted pickup trucks with 2 rows of seats in the back) leave every morning for Champasak from the new market. Pakse didn't look too charming so I headed straight to the new market to find transport on to Champasak. I found a guy who was taking his sawng thaew to Champasak and asked when it departed. He told me 10 AM. It was 7AM. I spent the next 3 hours in the bustling morning market, it was a distinctly Asian experience and was truly brilliant. At 10 o'clock I (and 22 other people) climbed into the back of the sawng thaew and headed for Champasak.

About an hour later I arrived in the sleepy town of Champasak. There is only one road through the whole town and the main traffic on it is herds of water buffalo. It was such a perfect place to be. There were almost no other tourists.

The nearby Wat Phu Champasak was the main attraction. It is a very large temple which predates Angkor Wat and is believed to be the blueprint from which Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples were built. About an hour after I arrived I went to find a place from which to hire a motorbike. I found a guy who would rent one out and bargained for a half-day price. Fifteen minutes later I was on a motorbike, cruising to Wat Phu.

The main walkway to Wat Phu
Wat Phu blew my mind. It is a powerful structure, built on a hill to overlook the Mekong and its flood plains. It is almost unimaginable to believe that it has been standing there for over a millennium, in a constant battle with the ravages of time. It is being restored, but much of what is there has been standing since it was built. A brisk walk up to the top of the hill gifts you with fantastic views of the Mekong River and surrounds. The vastness of the compound becomes apparent when you look over it and see the massive barays (man-made lakes) stretching out in front of you. Walking around the upper complex you will find intricate carvings of an elephant, a crocodile and buddha's footprint in the rocks. There is an aqueduct which brings water from a spring near the peak of the mountain and buddha statues protected from the elements in little caves.

What was also mind-blowing was that there were almost no other tourists there. There were some local tourists from Vientiane and an Englishman who was cycling in and around Southeast Asia.
A view from the top. Those square lakes are barays.

A crocodile carved into the rock

The main temple building

A look down on the main temple building

The next day in Champasak I spent doing the only thing one can do in such a place, read. The town is always quiet and once you've found your spot on the Mekong, under a tree you're sorted. I arranged my ticket to Don Det and just relaxed the day away. There was nothing else to do, it was superb.

Don Det possibly the most relaxed place on the planet. It is a tiny island in the Mekong River, part of Si Phan Don (4000 Islands). I arrived on Don Det just before midday and the whole place was silent. There was not a breath of wind nor the sound of a car. Boats puttered around on the river, but everything else was still. This was Don Det life. I walked down the sunrise side and found a place to stay. Almost all accommodation on Don Det is in the form of single-room, wooden bungalows over the river. On the balcony of each bungalow there are hammocks for lazing around in. I did what any sensible person would do, I lazed.

Don Det bungalow, hammocks are a necessity
On day one I lazed and read. On day two I lazed and read and booked my ticket to Siem Reap. On day three I lazed and read. I was almost finished both my books and was trying to read slowly to make the last pages stretch to the next day. On day four I rented a bicycle and pedaled my way over to Don Khon, the island directly south of Don Det. On Don Khon I went to the spot where one can see Irrawaddy dolphins, there weren't any. I then pedaled my way back to Tat Li Phi (Spirit Trap Waterfalls) and was instantly amazed by what I saw. Tat Li Phi is a series of waterfalls, not tall but long. They stretch for almost half a kilometre and thousands of tons of water cascade down every second. They are some of the most fantastic waterfalls I have ever seen. I chilled out at the waterfalls, just listening to the water crash down. It was a perfect way to bring my time in Laos to an end. A beautiful place in a beautiful country.
A small part of Tat Li Phi

The next morning (yesterday, as I write this) I picked up my bags, jumped on a ferry and left the island. 2 hours later the bus arrived to take me to Siem Reap. At 11 o'clock I was out of Laos and into Cambodia. At six in the evening the bus dropped all the passengers who were traveling to Siem Reap off in the middle of nowhere. 75km from Phnom Penh, 250km from Siem Reap. We waited for 2 hours. Another bus came and picked us up and took us to Siem Reap. 16 hours after departure, at midnight, the bus arrived.


P.S. During those 2 hours stop over I ate a grasshopper. Here's a couple of pictures:
Stage 1 - mental preparation

Stage 2 - execution

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Lao Time

Hello internet my old friend, it's been a while.

And hello to all you you people who keep coming back to punish yourself with my blog. You masochists, you. This little blog, which will probably turn into a not so little blog during the course of the 2 hours I plan on spending writing it is coming to you from a new country. Vietnam is done... for now.

A week and a day ago I left the city of Hanoi on a train bound for Vinh (still in Vietnam by the way). I was literally the only tourist on this train and I was treated as somewhat of a celebrity by the locals who plied me with rice whiskey and wanted to know everything about me. All of the time trying to communicate with hand signals as not one of them spoke a word of English. In Vinh the experience was continued as I was, once again, the only tourist there. On a routine wander around after arrival I was invited to sit with some locals who bought me beer and gave me tofu and peanuts. I couldn't stay long however as I had to get up early to catch the bus to Phonsavan (in Laos).

The bus for Phonsavan departed really early and was scheduled to take 10 hours, including the border crossing. As is the norm, it took roughly 12 hours excluding the border crossing. And I managed to sit next to the World Champ at Personal Space Invasion for the whole journey. Just my luck.
The border crossing was nothing short of epic. To get to the border one has to drive 25km up a spectacular mountain pass. The bus drove up the pass in bright sunshine and about a minute before reached the crest the heavens opened in a downpour second to none. At the border post it was raining so hard that the road had turned into a temporary river. Regulations stop the bus from driving right up to the Vietnamese side's entrance, so I had to run about 150m in the heaviest rain I have ever seen. By the time I reached the border post, 20 seconds later, I was soaked. I had wanted to take pictures of the crossing, but as you can imagine getting a camera out in a downpour in not the easiest or the best advised thing to do. I put my passport on the top of the pile of passports in from of the Vietnamese official and it got handled first and given back to me. Somehow the rain had stopped and I meandered over to the Laos side and got my visa without hassle.

Laos is a beautiful country. If not the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The drive through the mountains to Phonsavan proved it. Laos is lush and around every turn there is a stunning view down a valley or of a mountain. But more on that later.
The most beautiful country?

One of the better-preserved Jars
Phonsavan is one of the more populous cities in Laos, with a population of around 60 000. That said, it is a one-street town and the only reason it's worth visiting is the nearby Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is divided into about 300 sites, 7 of which have been cleared of UXO (unexploded ordnance) - from when America bombed the shit out of this country - and have been declared safe for tourists. I went to Plain of Jars site 1 the morning after crossing into Laos, before other tourists made an appearance and was blown away (there's a pun in there, it was completely unintended I assure you. I only noticed it when I read back on this post). The Plain of Jars site 1 has roughly 350 jars all dating back about 2000 years. There exact purpose is still a mystery but they are believed to be funerary urns. The people who built them are unknown and are believed to have disappeared. To every question you ask you'll likely get the response "It's a mystery."

An idea of scale
Walking amongst these ancient artifacts and knowing that you know about as much about them as archaeologists do and that at any given point you're probably not that far from an unexploded bomb is a somewhat surreal experience. Beating the tourists to the site was a brilliant idea as I was able to take it all in before anybody else arrived. Naturally it made it easier to take photos and I was pretty trigger happy with the snapshots.

Sadly once you've seen the Plain of Jars you've pretty much done everything in Phonsavan worth doing. After a morning in amongst the the Jars I headed back to Phonsavan and booked my ticket to Luang Prabang for the next day. About 5 minutes after I arrived back the rain started up and didn't stop until the evening. It was such luck that I was able to see the Jars in a dry part of a day that was 90% rain.

Lao time is unlike any other time (African-, me-, etc). If you think African time is slow, add 20% to that and you'll get Laos time. "How long will the bus take to get to Luang Prabang?" I asked.
"About 6 hours. You leave at 7 AM and get there around 3 o'clock." came the reply.
"Sounds good to me."
After nine hours on the bus you're thinking, "Where the fuck is this place?"
And then, mercifully, 10 and a half hours after departure, you see it. Way off in the distance, but it's there. You can almost touch it...
Another hour, thank you very much.

Every road in Luang Prabang looks like this.
And we're here. Luang Prabang. The most impossibly photogenic city in the world. Every street and alley you walk is picturesque. And everything you do, you do at 50% pace. It's Laos PDR at it's best (Please Don't Rush). It's a really small town that takes about half an hour to walk around, but there is so much to see you'd be hard pressed to see it all in just a couple of days.

But rushing around and trying to see everything is just not on. This is Laos after all. You must meander, with a book in hand, through the streets and alleys. Stopping as often as possible to read that book or sit in silence and watch the Mekong river do it's thing. There are Wat all over the place in Luang Prabang and you'll almost certainly be 'watted out' by the end of your stay. (Wat are buddhist temples, by the way).

Wat wat?
Sadly for me, the rain played a major role in what I could see and do. It bucketed on the first day I wanted to explore and I was confined to a balcony overlooking the market. Which was an experience in itself. There was a break in the clouds for about and hour so I headed around the city (literally. When I say I headed around the city, I mean I actually walked around it). I was trigger happy with the camera once again and got some really cool shots of the beautiful alleys and some of the Wat. At the end of my meander around I stopped and watched some local men playing Boules. It was drawing a crowd of spectators and the men were laughing and joking while playing a cracking game. If there is a metaphor for Lao life it would be this. It was the middle of the day, yet these men weren't interested in working, they just wanted to have some fun.

The night market
The greatest attraction in Luang Prabang, in my opinion, is the food. At night buffets open up in the market and you can get a hug plate of great food for only 10 000kip (Roughly R10). You can expect your tastebuds to be awakened by a trip to Luang Prabang. After you've gorged yourself on a brilliant vegetarian buffet head down to the night market and grab yourself a fruit shake for 5 000kip. Take a moment to watch as that fresh pineapple you just chose gets turned into a fruit shake right before your eyes.

On another of the days which didn't rain I headed out of town to see what I could find, away from other tourists. I found a place with looms set up and women weaving away. It was incredible to see how much effort goes into making those beautiful cloths that we barter so furiously over. It makes you wonder how they can sell those cloths so cheaply, hundreds of hours go into making a single cloth. It was a humbling experience and it put a lot of what I've seen into perspective. The sheer amount of effort that goes into it and yet we barter so hard over what, in our currencies, amounts to mere cents.

After visiting the weaving centre I headed back into the city's heart and found a shady spot to read away the afternoon. It seems that the most I did in Luang Prabang was eat, read, and walk. That night I went back to the night market, this time armed with a camera for some more trigger-finger stretching. The next morning I would jump on a bus to Vientiane - the capital of Laos and where I am writing this blog post from.

Luang Prabang will definitely go down as one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. It is a beauty-filled city with friendly people and the most relaxed pace of life you will ever experience. It makes doing nothing a reward for doing very little and it laughs at you for taking life too seriously.

Kip jokes aren't as funny as dong...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Sapa - A Synopsis

My last blog post came to you  from the hill town of Sapa. In it I mentioned briefly that I had arrived and was impressed by the place, not much else. This blog entry will be dedicated almost entrirely to the magnificent town of Sapa.

Mists swirl up the valley
We arrived in Sapa on the morning of the 6th and were instantly blown away by the beauty of the place. Rice paddies are cut into the surrounding hills and mist swirls up the valley in the morning. It is a small town inhabited almost entirely my minority people such as the H'mong and Dzao. The markets buzz and the people always smile. You get hassled almost non-stop, but it is oddly enjoyable.

I will be writing this blog post somewhat like a synopsis of events that transpired in Sapa. In order to do this best I will be writing about each day separately. Let's begin... at the beginning...

Day 1
Duc and I, chilling in Moon
Once we had settled in our hotel which sported a view that few places rivaled we headed into town to orientate ourselves. Orientating oneself in Sapa is not exactly very hard to do. There is one road of significance in the entire town. On this road there are bars, hotels, restaurants and the market. Once we had got our bearings we did the most important thing that every traveler must do. We found a good place to eat and ate. The name of the place was Moon and it is owned by a man named Duc. Duc is without a doubt the coolest guy in Sapa. He played covers of Metallica and Guns 'N Roses on his old acoustic guitar while we ate breakfast. He sat and chatted to us and told us about what to do and where to go in Sapa to get the most out of our experience.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Sapa, stopping regularly to sit and take in the amazing views. We chatted with some of the local H'mong women who gave us wristbands then meandered through the market to see what was on offer.

Day 2

A view down on the rice paddies
Day 2 was our first big day out in Sapa. Or rather out of Sapa. We spent almost the entire day trekking down to a nearby village and back. We set out fairly early and had breakfast at Moon with Duc, bought some provisions for on the trek and headed down the mountain side. We walked along the main road for about an hour until we reached the turnoff we were looking for. We turned off the road and weaved our way down the side of the mountain on a gravel road, passing rice paddies and homes. This was a spectacular walk down and almost every corner we rounded we were greeted by a fantastic view. We stopped often to snap photos and admire the scenery. At the bottom of the track we crossed a wide river on a very wobbly suspension bridge and ended up in a small village. We had wanted to head back to Sapa in the valley, rather than on the main road, but the road we were looking for didn't exist. The map was pretty certain it did and we spent nearly an hour trying to locate it to no avail. A bit disappointed not to be doing the loop we'd planned on doing, we trudged our way back up to the main road and back to Sapa. It was a steep walk back and by the time we reached the local bia hoi joint we were ready to put our feet up.

The river and rice paddies
And put our feet up we did. At just R7 for 1.5 litres of beer we felt happy to put away 3 litres of the stuff. Thankfully bia hoi is weak stuff or we wouldn't have managed to walk the hundred metres back up the hill to our hotel. On the walk back we did have to make a pit stop to empty the tanks, though.

Day 3
We spent our third day in Sapa relaxing. After breakfast at Duc's we headed into the market to get some fruit then back up to the balcony at our hotel where we sat and read for most of the day. I took the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world a bit and actually watched the news for the first time in Vietnam. It was good to see what was going on in the rest of the world and it felt refreshing to reconnect a loose connection. It came loose the next day again, but it was good while it lasted. After a very relaxed day we headed down to the bia hoi joint, sat with the locals and relaxed some more, this time with a beer in hand.

No such thing as a flat path in Sapa
Day 4
The final day in Sapa. We were catching a night train back to Hanoi on this day and had to catch a bus at 17:30 to get to the Lao Cai train station. Time was limited so we rented motorbikes for the day and headed north, further into the mountains. Jeremy Clarkson said the road between Hoi An and Hue was the ride of a lifetime. The pass out of Sapa is better. The road may not be in the best condition, but the views are magnificent and the switchbacks and curves are incredibly fun to drive on a motorbike. All in all the pass is about 50 kilometres long and winds up and out of Sapa before plummeting down towards the Chinese border. We rode for hours, stopping to take pictures of the many waterfalls which cascade down the mountain side, and eventually ended up in a little village at a crossroads. It was at this little village that we were served the worst coffee in Vietnam, but it didn't matter we were loving being on the bikes. We were a little nervous about missing the bus so we headed back. Driving those roads once more was exhilarating and the bikes came alive on the steep roads. It was a bit of a battle driving up the pass as the bikes seldom managed to get over 40km/h even at full throttle, but the drive was unbelievably good.
The drive of a lifetime
Our paranoia about missing the bus turned out to be completely unfounded as we arrived back at 14:45. As there was not much more to do in Sapa we headed to the bia hoi joint again and waited for the bus to arrive.

We arrived back in Hanoi this morning and headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we saw old Ho's embalmed body. It's a crazy place and no pictures are allowed so I can't share the experience with you, but it was really strange seeing the man this country has deified. It was an almost surreal experience walking through the mausoleum and being able to look at the perfectly preserved body of a man who wanted to be cremated.


Saturday, 7 May 2011

Vietnam's Biggest Surprise

Make yourselves comfortable, this could be another long'un.

Jeremy Clarkson, upon seeing Halong Bay, described it as 'Vietnam's biggest surprise.' After seeing Halong Bay I can say with certainty that that statement is the best description of Halong bay. You can look at millions of pictures and read thousands of books and nothing will prepare you for your first sight of the thousands of karst islands towering above the sea. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I first need to write a little about Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

A back alley in Hanoi, before sunset
The easiest way to describe Hanoi would be to compare it to a similar city, in this case the best comparison would be HCMC. Hanoi is nothing like Saigon. Comparison done. About the only thing Hanoi has in common with HCMC is the craziness. Hanoi is at full throttle all day and most of the night. Sadly, the similarities end there. Hanoi lacks the charm that is so abundant in HCMC. It is much more business-like and the attitude of the people reflects that. Basically Hanoi is all the craziness of HCMC with none of the smiles and laughs. And everything is 50% more expensive than in the south.

On Wednesday morning, bright and early a bus came and whisked us off to Halong Bay for our 2 day cruise through the karsts. We jumped on the boat at midday and had lunch on our way to the first stop on the tour, 2 huge caves full of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave is one of the first limestone islands you come to, so a full view of the other karsts was not provided just yet.
The first cave, lit in crazy colours
The first cave is more popular with the tourists and was lit with lights in many different colours. The cave was spectacular, but the multi-coloured lights detracted from the brilliance of it and furthermore a fountain had been installed near the exit. Millions of years of erosion by the dripping of water and crashing of waves and they've gone and put a fountain right in the middle of the cave. The idea is ridiculous, not to mention damaging to the cave in the long run.

The second cave was much less visited by tourists and was far better than the first. It was not lit by ridiculous lights and it felt a lot less tainted by people. We had only 40 minutes to explore both caves as we had more to do and see that day so we headed back to the boat to avoid being left behind. We left the cave and the island behind and cruised into the karsts. The karsts are truly amazing. There is no proper way to describe them without failing to do them justice. Limestone mountains with sheer cliffs jut out of the sea and tower over everything beneath them.

The karst islands of Halong Bay
The inhabitants of Halong bay have a story almost as dramatic as that of the islands. Many of the people who inhabit the floating villages spread throughout Halong bay are born there, live there and die there, some never setting foot on dry land apart from the karsts. The next stop on the tour was at one of these villages where we were taken through a cave to a place where we could swim. It is at this point that I would like to add that the tour itself was not that good. The tour operators were misers of the worst kind and everyone on board was still hungry after every meal. For breakfast on the second day we had to share an omelet between 5 people. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in Vietnam. It is a deliberate tactic caused by an agreement between tour/bus/boat operators and restaurants/locals. The restaurant has a monopoly on food in an area and the bus/boat/tour operator brings hungry customers who are then forced to buy food. In this case the boat operator was also the snack stall owner so it was in his best interests to keep everyone hungry so they'd buy snacks.

The tour itinerary may not have been the best and the food may have been slim, but the only reason I went was to see the karsts and they certainly didn't disappoint me. Just being able to see this natural wonder was good enough for me. Spending a night on a boat amongst some of those limestone towers was a fantastic experience.

The next morning, after breakfast, we started our journey back to the harbour. The karsts were bathed in early-morning mist and were even more stunning than the day before. We stopped at the same village as the previous day to do some kayaking in exactly the same place as we'd taken the boat which was a bit annoying, but an experience nonetheless. After a measly allowance of 20 minutes on the kayaks we headed out of the karsts and back to the harbour for lunch. For once we were served a hearty meal and I polished off about six bowls of rice.

The karsts wrapped in a mist blanket
After a gratifyingly filling lunch, I waddled my rice belly over to the bus to commence the journey back to Hanoi. The bus driver nearly killed everyone on a number of occasions on the way back by playing chicken with trucks and other buses, but somehow we arrived intact.

We arrived back at 17:00 and had to catch a night train to Sapa at 20:35, so we showered and caught up with the rest of the world while we waited for the train. At 19:30 we made our way to the train station, found the right platform and got on the train. I was passed out within minutes of the train leaving the station and at 4:45 this morning was awoken and told we had arrived at Lao Cai on the Chinese border. We jumped off the train and onto a bus heading to Sapa and waited for it to leave. An hour later the bus departed for Sapa and 45 minutes after that we arrived.

In the past few days I've seen some of the most amazing sights and some of the most beautiful vistas Vietnam has to offer. Sapa is high in the mountains and we climbed through mist and fog to get here. Upon arrival at our hotel we were treated to the most magnificent views I have ever seen. Terraced fields occupy the sides of the surrounding mountains and mist was rising up the valley. We stood on a balcony above it all, breathed in the fresh mountain air and took in the incredible view. What a place!
Welcome to Sapa!


P.S. I wrote this blog up yesterday, but wasn't able to add the pictures so everywhere you see the word 'today', substitute it with the word 'yesterday'. It may sound difficult, but I believe in you.

P.P.S Here are some more shots of the karsts for your enjoyment:

Cruising through the karsts

A floating village complete with school and bank

At low tide you can kayak though that little opening
You may not be able to see it, but on the right hand side
of the pic there is a cave that you can go through.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A Month

Today is an important day in my travels, it signifies the end of my first month in Vietnam. I thought I'd type up a blog post to commemorate the occasion. I'll be writing about a few things I've learnt on my travels and hopefully give a few tips for traveling in Vietnam.

Useful Phrases

Cam On - pronounced 'cam ern' - This is the second most useful phrase you need to know when traveling in Vietnam and probably the one you'l hear yourself saying way too often. The meaning is simple, thank you. You can't get bye without it and almost every conversation with locals you have, you'll find yourself blurting it out like a stuck record.

Equally as important as a a thank you is the phrase Khong, cam on - pronounced 'kom, cam ern' - meaning No, thank you. Believe me, after you've been approached by 20 moto and cyclo drivers 5 minutes after leaving your hotel this phrase comes in handy for telling them your feet are a cheaper option for getting around.

Xin Chao - pronounced 'sin jow' - Some could argue that this is the most important phrase you need to know. Simply meaning hello it certainly is a conversation starter and the locals will love you for putting in the effort to learn a bit of Vietnamese.

Tam biet - pronounced 'tam bee-et' - For the quick getaway this phrase is your friend. Best coupled with a 'cam on' beforehand it means goodbye and will let you leave without waving like an imbecile to signal your intent.

Pho (Bo) - pronounced 'fer (boh)' - Used when your stomach is growling. Sit down at any place serving food and say these words. A bowl of rice noodles (and beef) will be in front of you within minutes and you can ease those hunger pangs.

All of these phrases will get you by just fine, but the phrase you need most of all is this:

Ca Phe - pronounced as you would expect it to be pronounced - A lifesaver, the most important phrase in Vietnamese. Coffee. Grasp this phrase and you will experience joy like no other. Look for any stall with these words written on it, sit down, say these words and wait for the magic to happen. However, sometimes ca phe isn't enough. Ca phe (nong/da) will give you (hot/ice) coffee. Ca phe sua (nong/da) will get you (hot/ice) coffee with condensed milk for a little more dong. And for the very particular coffee drinkers, ca phe den will get you a cup of black coffee. If you travel in Vietnam, learn these words if you learn nothing else.


A very important thing to learn is that everything can be bartered for and no price you get told is the going price. You're a foreigner you can expect to be charged up to 5 times the going rate. Never accept the first price you get told, you will almost certainly find it cheaper somewhere else. The most powerful bartering weapon in your arsenal is to walk away. Using this tactic will halve the price almost immediately with room left for further bartering.
In a market in Hoi An I was interested in buying some banana chips. I was told they cost 30 000 dong (R10). I immediately said the price was too high and said I'd pay 5000 dong. Suddenly the price had halved and I was being offered the chips for 15 000. I said 5000 once more and miraculously the price dropped to 10 000 dong. It was then that I employed the coup de grace and walked away, saying 'cam on, tam biet'. The lady I was bartering with stopped me and said 'OK'. I bought the chips at a sixth of the original price.

An aside: Caving - this is a term to describe giving in and accepting an offer. It is important to know that if you're prepared to barter for ten minutes you'll get what you want at the price you want it for. Don't cave! In general the person you're bartering with will cave first, you just have to be prepared to walk away.

Another aside: Absolutely everything can be bartered for. The words 'too much' are golden. Everything from hotel rooms to sandwiches to can be bought at a cheaper price if you say the words 'too much' and then quote your price.

Yet another aside: Bartering is seen as a game to the Vietnamese people. Keep laughing and smiling and treat your opponent like your best friend. If they quote a really high price, chuckle at it and say 'too much.' Never get angry. I've seen other foreigners get frustrated and lose their cool. This is frowned upon by the locals and is no way to barter. Some of the nicest conversations I've had in Vietnam have been with the person I'm bartering with.

Just one more aside

Just kidding. I'm going to tell you about shuttlecock, a game very similar to badminton, but played with one's feet. The Vietnamese people love it and every evening the parks fill with shuttlecock enthusiasts all playing for fun. Most people play it for the fun of it, not competitively and prefer to keep the shuttlecock in the air for as long as possible rather than trying to beat their opponent. I say its a game played with the feet but almost anything goes, only the palms of one's hands can't be used.
It could almost be considered an art form as the players emphasise control of the shuttlecock by kicking it from behind their backs or through their arms.

Rules of the road

There are none.

Have a lovely dong...