Vietnam is a fascinating country with a lot to see. Unfortunately we only had a small month there – we could easily have spent two!
The different culture is one of the greatest experiences when visiting Vietnam. But there are lots of things to see. The beautiful Halong Bay in the northern part of Vietnam is a must, but that can be said about many places in this country. Hanoi, Hue and the history of the war, Saigon and the Mekong Delta just to mention a few highlights.
The Vietnamese people must be some of the friendliest in the World. Right up there with the New Zealanders. Amazingly you hardly see any bitterness from the Vietnam war. At least not on the outside. The Vietnamese people have moved on, and are trying to make the best out of what they have.
We flew in to Hanoi from Vientiane (Laos). We flew Vietnam Airlines, which turned out to be an excellent company. The service was great, there were English newspapers and magazines and the food was tasty. There aren’t many airlines you can say that about! From the airport it’s about 30km to the center of Hanoi. Taxi drivers will take you for US$30(!) – we took a bus (US$4). In the center we found a nice hotel room. At US$25 it was pretty expensive, but there were four beds, and split four ways (we met two Americans) it wasn’t too bad.
Hanoi was very different from any other large city we’ve visited. There are hardly any cars, only mopeds and bikes. Thousands of mopeds and bikes. So many are there, that it can be pretty difficult crossing the street. Until you learn how to do it that is. The way to cross a street is simply to slowly start crossing, walking at a steady pace and in a straight line. All the bikes and mopeds will miraculously go around you and suddenly you are at the other side. It works every time.
Withdrawing money is an experience too. In 95 US$1 equaled 11000dong. Since the notes aren’t very large, you end up having a huge amount of notes. People came in to banks with sport bags filled with money. Not exactly what we’re used to in Denmark…
Saw the Ho Chi Minh museum (knowing Vietnamese is a great advantage!) and the War museum. The latter was very propagandistic, but who can blame them.
One of the things we really wanted to see in Vietnam was Halong Bay, so we booked a tour would take us there. Halong Bay consists of more than 3000 small islands, scattered around the Tonkin Bay, and the best way to see it is by boat. We spent three days on a boat sailing from one beautiful spot to another.
Went trekking in the Cat Ba National Park and visited caves one of which went right through a mountain. Other than that, snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing and just enjoying the beautiful surroundings was how the time was spent. This place is definitely worth a visit!
Back in Hanoi we saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The Mausoleum is a large building looking like a temple. Inside Ho Chi Minh lies in a dark room inside a glass casket. There are guarding soldiers all over the place – eight in the room where he lies. Photography is strictly forbidden. There are always many people in line waiting to see Ho Chi Minh, so you don’t get more than a couple of minutes inside the Mausoleum. I guess that’s enough anyway.
It’s amazing what the Vietnamese can transport on their mopeds. Whether it’s five persons(!), 20 chickens or a ton of merchandize you can’t help but be impressed.
Not nearly as impressive is the garbage collection system in the city. During the day everybody just dumps garbage on the streets, and then in the evening or early morning, garbage trucks removes it. But during a hot summer day it is not very appetizing.
Now it was time to continue. We took the train south to Hué
We got tickets to an express train, so the trip to Hué took 13 hours. We left Hanoi at 7pm. The train was old and noisy, but not very crowded, so it wasn’t too bad. Ear plugs made sleeping easier. Surprisingly breakfast was served in the morning just before arrival: noodle soup, bananas and water. We also got a small toilet bag containing toothbrush/paste, come, facecloth and a small bottle of perfume. Almost like flying!
Found a cheap guest house and relaxed for a while. Then we went out to find something to eat. Looking through a menu in Southeast Asia is always quite entertaining. You can get:
Beeff steak w. frencha fried
Beef w. tometoes and oniong
Pork w. tometoes and oniang
wine: rous (turned out to be rice whisky)
They properly do it on purpose because the tourists thinks it is funny 🙂
Saw the Citadel (Kinh Thanh) initiated by Emperor Long in 1804. Inside the Citadel lies the Imperial Enclosure – the Emperors private quarters. Most original buildings are gone, but there still are a few left. Very interesting place.
Vietnam practices “tourist prices” and especially the entrance fee to the Citadel showed this. Tourists pays 11 times what the locals pay. Fair enough, if the money are used to protect the sights.
Took a one day tour of the DMZ (de-militarized zone). This zone divided North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. We were lucky and got a good English speaking guide. He told us a lot about the war – very depressing to hear. The DMZ used to be mainly jungle, with tigers and elephants, but since the Americans were scared of the jungle they dropped 45000 tons of napalm and other chemicals on the area. Even today plants and trees have difficulties growing there.
We also saw part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the trail the North Vietnamese people used to transport tunnel supplies from North to South. It is thought that there was about 160000 km trial! Saw the Khe Sanh Combat Base, famous for the 1968 siege. Continued to the northern part of the DMZ and saw the Vinh Moc tunnels. At the end of the war, the Americans had dropped 3 tons of bombs per inhabitant over this town. There were about 2½ km tunnel under the town and room for 250 people. People lived in the tunnels for 4 years.
We now continued south to Hoi An. This time by minibus.
Arrived in Hoi An found a guest house and went out to see the city. There were too many tourists and not that much to see, so we decided to move on the next morning. That meant missing Marble Mountain and China Beach, but we’ve heard that those places were also crawling with tourists.
Took another minibus and endured an 11 hour ride to Nha Trang. They always put too many people in those busses!
Nha Trang is famous for two things: Banana Split 58 and Mama Hanh’s Special Boat Trip. You hear about them from other tourists no matter where you are. We tried both and can highly recommend them.
Banana Split 58 is (as the name implies) famous for it’s banana splits. They are big and delicious and costs about US$0.2. Dangerously cheap!
Mama Hanh’s Special Boat Trip is a full day of eating and snorkeling. First there is snorkeling and then a sumptuous sea food meal. All kinds of sea food. Very delicious. After this meal we went swimming again… Actually, I can’t think of a swimming rule that wasn’t broken during this trip. Now we experienced Mama Hanh’s floating bar. She jumped in the water with all her clothes, placed fruit and beer on a piece of flamingo and tied herself to it. Then, smoking something floating_bar that looked like a cigarette (…), she threw beers to the people swimming around her. Not a very good example…
The dessert was a fruit table featuring an abundance of fruit – including at least five kinds of fruit I never had heard of. Excellent. Needless to say that we weren’t very hungry at the end of the trip. It cost US$7, all included. Pretty cheap.
There are a few other sights to see in Nha Trang, among others a huge reclining Buddha. I missed those in favor of a serious case of bad stomach. Maybe the sea food… but it was worth it.
We left Nha Trang by train heading for Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The train ride rook about 11 hours. Took a couple of dorm beds at Sinh Cafe, and went sight seeing. Saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and was interviewed by a couple of Vietnamese students. They are very eager to speak English. There are a lot of historical places in Saigon, known from the Vietnam war. Saw the Thich Quang Duc Memorial, raised in memory of a monk who burned himself in protest of the Diem regime. Went to the War Crimes Exhibition, earlier know as Museum of American War Crimes. The name has been changed in order to avoid repelling American tourists, but there is still no doubt who is the bad guy. It is estimated that the US dropped 7850000 tons of bombs over Vietnam and 75000000 liters ofembassy chemicals. These numbers do not include the enormous amount of bullets fired during the war.
The old American Embassy lies like a ghost building in the center of Saigon. The hole building is encapsulated in a concrete shell to protect it from bombs.
Took a three day tour of the Mekong Delta in the southern part of Vietnam. Saw how local people made a living by example making incense sticks. They could make 4000 a day and were paid 2 dong per demolition. That amounted to approximately US$0.75 per day. Not very much.
Vietnam is a poor country, and many jobs performed by machines in the West are still performed by people in Vietnam. For example demolishing buildings with sledge hammers.
One evening we had a pretty unusual dinner. It consisted of:
– Stir fried snake (the live snake was brought to the table for approval)dinner
– Roasted (small) birds
– Frog, fried with fungus and vermicelli
– Water buffalo flesh boiled in fermented cold rice
– Boiled snake with citronella
– Rice and beer
Not your everyday meal – at least not in Denmark. The price per person was well below US$3.
Went for a boat ride on the Mekong river. The river is used for everything: washing people, washing clothes, toilet, drinking water, ice cubes and so on. This is why it is best to order without ice. Saw a very interesting floating market. Why people trade on the water instead of on land I don’t know. It was also possible to buy snakes and snake wines.
On the way back to Saigon we visited a small cafe where the owner had a pretty big Python. 40 kg and almost 4 meters in length. He told us it was tame, and we believed him…
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Back in Saigon we went on a one-day tour to see a Cao Dai temple and the famous Cu Chi tunnels. Cao Dai is a religion mixed from a lot of different religions. It was founded in 1926 and has a large number of followers in Vietnam.
The Cu Chi tunnels were amazing. They became almost legendary during war, because the North Vietnamese, using these tunnels, more or less could control a large area very close to Saigon. The Americans couldn’t find the tunnels, and bombs didn’t destroy them. The tunnels are built in a way that only the small Vietnamese people can fit inside them. Larger western people get stuck. An Israeli guy thought he could get through an entrance, but he got stuck, and two people had to help him get up.
Some parts of the tunnels have been expanded so tourists can walk in them. The tunnels are still only 80-120cm high. We went through 150m of tunnel – not very pleasant. During the war the tunnels were filled with traps in many forms. For example cobra snakes. We also saw examples of the infamous booby traps. It was an ugly war.
Went sight seeing in the Chinese quarter Cholon and saw a few pagodas. There aren’t many cars in Saigon, but compared to Hanoi there are. And many more mopeds – not so many bikes.
That was about it. A very exiting (and fast) tour of Vietnam had come to an end. We could easily have used another month. But now it was time to go back to Bangkok from where we had plane tickets to Kathmandu, Nepal.