People ask me frequently if tours are worth it. I get the feeling the general consensus is that they are rip-offs, only marketed to travelers who crave coddling. I use to be a tour snob, but frankly, tours are useful. It depends on what you want to see and how much. In Saigon, I got the chance to see a side of the city that otherwise would have escaped me. Back of the Bike Tours is a fairly new company and they offer unique motorbike tours of Saigon. I felt an immediate kinship with owners, Chad and Thuy Kubanoff, two young entrepreneurs. It was like hanging out with friends, but the benefit is they have the inside scoop on the best places to shop or eat. I’m mostly an adventurous gal, so the chance to hop on a bike again was thrilling. What’s interesting about their tours are a few things: 1. Fully customizable. They ask what you want to do. Totally unusual for a tour. I loved it. For instance, we wanted to pick up a few items, but wanted to stay away from the tout heavy Bến Thành Market, and they suggested Saigon Square, which was less hectic.
You hate the traffic, the incessant honking, the lack of personal space, the uneven, jagged sidewalks or the aggressive touts at the markets. I love it all. The Motorbikes My expat friend, Max Murta describes riding a motorbike in Saigon like being in a school of fish. Weave with the group, never against it, and all will be okay. You probably laugh at the motorcyclists wearing those ‘surgical’ masks, but there’s a practical reason for wearing them. To deter exhaust. And when crossing the road? Just close your eyes, say a quick prayer and walk diagonally, the fish always go around you. Animals, Everywhere You whip your head around, gawking with disbelief. Did I just see that? A rooster. There’s another one! And another one! How disgusting. What you don’t know is cock-fighting is a popular underground sport in Vietnam. Households will raise two kinds of chickens, white and brown. Generally, the white chickens are for eating, the brown ones for fighting. What you find odd is fairly darn normal here.
Really, what can I say about my post-Ultimate Train Challenge time? We spent a restful week at the Thien Thao Hotel through the kind powers that be at HostelBookers and I was ready to squat for a while. Remember when I was gushing about potential rose petals? Well, I never really got those, but I got this at least: It was comfy. Housekeeping came everyday! Amazed I was at this prospect. In India, I was lucky if they changed bedding yearly, let alone every day. The other bonus? Free breakfast every morning, included in your hotel cost.
This is the tally so far: 19 trains in one month. Hanoi to Saigon makes it the 20th and final train for me. After a lovely break in Guilin where China Odyssey Tours treated us to some pleasant excursions of the Lijiang River and the countryside , we were back onto the train towards Hanoi. We spent a lightening fast day there where some scavenger hunt items were racked up, but mostly time was spent on work. While the Trans-Manchurian proved varied, interesting and wild, I have to make this declaration, I heart Vietnam. The train ride from Hanoi to Saigon was by far my favorite. The last time I was in Vietnam was 8 years ago, and what delighted me the first time also rang true the second time around. 8 years ago, it was riding on a bus through the hills, and as we snaked around a bend, the bus was enveloped by mist. There’s something about fog that I find sexy. It’s mysterious, caressing, kind of like your lover’s hand, and that’s what it felt like in Vietnam all those years ago. Once we came out the other side of the fog, there was a sheer drop and I gasped out loud at a white, sand beach below, untouched, not a soul’s footprint on it.