Strictly: Stray – Part #1

With Niki returned to Singapore, and my stomach in full protest over something I fed it, it was time to join my Stray Asia tour from Ho Chi Minh up to Hanoi. Unlike most organised tours, Stray offers a hop-on, hop-off service complete with a guide. Basically, you buy a pass that covers the bus and the services of your tour guide. If you want to stay on your bus then you spend a day in a couple of the country’s highlights and finish in just over two weeks. If you have longer to spare you can hop off the bus in pretty much every place you stop, and just hop on a different bus when you want to carry on the journey. It’s an idea that started in New Zealand, and works really well for people who want to travel but don’t want to have to work out every little detail themselves. I was a little apprehensive at first, on a normal organised tour you’re pretty certain that the vast majority of the group are going to be in the exact same position as you, not knowing anyone and with more or less the same idea of what they want to get out of the experience. With Stray, however, it’s impossible to guess how many people will have been travelling together before, and hopping on and off the bus means you could end up changing groups of people multiple times, which might work out but also might not. Luckily, I hopped on the bus with a good group of people, and a few of us managed to stick together throughout the whole of the country, so I ended up in a little ready-made tour group which was lovely.

After leaving Ho Chi Minh our first stop was two overnights and a day in Dalat. Before even managing to reach Dalat we had a bit of a bus nightmare, however. On trying to leave Ho Chi Minh it transpired that our bus had no working air con, not great for a five hour journey in the high 20s. An initial wait of half an hour for a new bus turned into nearer two hours and, when we did finally get going, the journey was made even longer (something I didn’t even think possible at this point) by the fact that our driver had to spend an hour changing a tyre at our first stop. All these delays meant that a scheduled trip to the Datanla Waterfall on the way fell by the wayside, as we turned up as it was closing. Roll into this the fact that I spent a total of 2 hours actually seeing Dalat, because I spent the whole of our first night, and the next day, running back and forth between my bed and the bathroom, and the start to my Stray trip was not the best. The only good thing about starting my tour in such a dramatically bad fashion was that it was pretty unlikely that it could get any worse. Thankfully, on this I was right. Of all my time in Vietnam those first 2 days on Stray were by far the low point and, from there on, it was all moving on up.

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The beautiful beach at Bai Xep. Even in awful weather it was charming.

When I had finally recovered from my bout of sickness, and with a brand new and fully functioning bus, it was time to set off again to the tiny fishing village of Bai Xep. On the way we stopped in Nha Trang, a popular beach spot for backpackers and (apparently) Russian tourists. We were only there a few hours but, listening to some others talk, I was pretty pleased I didn’t hop off as I don’t think it would’ve been worth hanging around there for four days. Bai Xep, on the other hand, was lovely. The weather, unfortunately, not so much. A tiny little fishing village, almost completely off the traveller trail, we were almost alone on the beach in Bai Xep and, even though the rubbish weather meant we couldn’t do any actual activities in our free day (which is a shame because I really wanted to go out in one of the famous Vietnamese round bamboo boats) it was so nice to spend the day chilling out at the hostel and wandering along the beach. Big Tree Backpackers, the hostel we stayed in, also had amazing food and I was so pleased I’d recovered enough to enjoy it, I can’t put into words how sad I would’ve been if I had been confined to bread and boiled rice.

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Lovely Hoi An

After the super chilled out day in Bai Xep it was back on the bus and up to Hoi An. This is a place I knew I wanted to hop off the bus in, so I was pretty excited to see what all the hype was about. I can happily tell you that Hoi An was all I wanted it to be, and more. In four days we wandered around the old town multiple times, taking way more pictures than my camera could handle, did a Vietnamese cooking class, spent far too much money shopping, did a cycling tour and hired bikes (which, as you can imagine, I have a funny story about). Hoi An is famous for its tailoring, and in the tiny old town alone there are over 200 tailors. There is no way I could spend four days in the town without getting something made, and I only lasted two days before giving in and getting myself a tailor-made dress and a new pair of denim shorts. At $85 for both it seemed ludicrous to not do it! And, of course, I went shopping. Because not only is Hoi An filled with cheap and beautiful clothes (although, typical me, the clothes I liked and then talked myself into buying were far more expensive than 90% of the stuff in Hoi An) but it’s also the home of hand painted lanterns and I couldn’t just walk around a night market packed with them without buying one!

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How could you walk past all these and not buy just one?!

Thankfully I only let myself shop for one day, so the damage to my bank balance was not as bad as it could’ve been. The rest of my time in Hoi An was filled with all the activities the city has to offer. I’ve decided that I need to try and do a cooking class in each country I visit in Asia so, following on from my Khmer cookery class in Siem Reap I did a Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An. We went to The Green Mango, a very nice restaurant (with very, very nice cocktails) to do the class and got to choose our own 5 course menu to botch. After a really long deliberation we settled on smoked duck spring rolls, the classic Vietnamese dish of beef pho, fish grilled in banana leaf, an aubergine claypot and a dessert of ginger and cinnamon creme brûlée. I managed to not blow anything up, drop anything, or set anything on fire throughout the whole class and at the end we had a lovely and ridiculously large Vietnamese meal to show for our efforts. Asia is slowly convincing me that I could be the next Nigella!

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No injuries were caused with any of these utensils

I’d say it took a full afternoon for that mountain of food to go down but, when it finally had, we decided to book ourselves onto a half day cycling tour of the local countryside. Of course we also managed to pick the day when it rained all morning so, even though the cycling was lovely and we got to see some real off the beaten track countryside, we also got very wet. Luckily our guide Happy Harry (the actual name he told us to call him) was just as  happy as you would imagine, and wouldn’t let a little rain stop him from serenading us with 00’s pop hits throughout the majority of our ride. Amazingly I didn’t even come close to dying while on the bike, and even enjoyed the cycling after we got off the main road and bumped across dirt tracks, through rice paddies and local villages. Whilst on our tour we got to ride a water buffalo, an experience I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to repeat, and try home brewed rice wine or ‘happy water’ as it’s called in Vietnam which, as you can imagine, tastes like cheap vodka and burns just as much on the way down. The two highlights of my day (next to not dying on a bike) were visiting the oldest couple in the area, who still own a farm and were the smiliest people I’ve ever met, and riding in a round bamboo fishing boat whilst wearing a conical hat, which had pretty much become my Vietnam dream after seeing them everywhere. Of course it rained whilst we were in the boat, but the hat turned out to be very waterproof and floating through the tall grasses which filled the river (although it could’ve been a lake, I’m really not sure) was amazing, no matter what the weather.

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This is the face of someone who does not expect to survive this moment in one piece
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The oldest couple in Hoi An province
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I am exactly as happy about this situation as I seem

I felt so confident in my cycling abilities after this day trip that I agreed to renting bikes the next day so that we could explore the islands that lie just off the coast of Hoi An. As I’m sure you can imagine this was the moment of pride before the fall, and I’m pretty sure I was close to death at least twice throughout the course of the afternoon. My first upset happened whilst riding through the old town, the area of the city we’d explored a few days before that’s packed with heritage houses, little old temples and the famous Japanese covered bridge. It’s an amazing place with old buildings that show the effects of regular flooding on their yellow walls and an interesting mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture and design.

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Hoi An is the prettiest place I’ve ever seen

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Anyway, I digress. Riding through the old town I was doing well (or as well as you can realistically expect when the place is packed with tourists, bikes and motorbikes going any which way they fancy) until an Italian woman casually stepped into the road in front of me and I rode straight into her. Well, not quite straight into, but I hit her with my handlebars. And with her shouts following me up the road I had my first life flashing before my eyes moment as I watched a coconut casually fall off a woman’s handcart and roll towards my bike, threatening to end up underneath my front wheel. Thankfully it only hit the side of my wheel, but it was a close run thing. After these two traumatic experiences it was a relief to get out of the city and into the countryside that covers the islands of Cam Kim and Cam Nam and cycle lazily through villages and rice paddies, and along the sleepy shoreline. We were intrigued by some techno dance music we heard being played on Cam Nam island and, after further exploration, stumbled across a local wedding that had been in full swing since ten that morning. Of course we crashed it, and were welcomed by some very drunk wedding guests who kept feeding us beer and trying to make us sing. It was a unique experience and one I really didn’t expect!

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This is what you expect to find in the Vietnamese countryside. Not the techno wedding party that was raging around the corner. 

After four packed days in Hoi An it was almost time to hop back on the Stray bus and head off up to the ancient capital of Hue. But you’ll have to wait until Part 2 for that exciting ride.

Leah Out X

P.S Keep up to date on my adventures (in real time, no less!) on Instagram

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