Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam
March 28th – 30th 2011

Another long 12-hour overnight bus ride brought me to Hanoi. At least it wasn’t raining when I got here but the air was cool and crisp, expected being so far up north.

I had been recommended a guesthouse by some people I ran into in Hue, the same people I met in Luang Prabang. I decided to stay there but was surprised at the price, higher than what I thought it would be ($14/night). After staying in the room for 10 minutes, I changed my mind and left the guesthouse. I found another one, much cheaper, at $7/night. It was a bit old but the room had an altar in it with a Taoist god and incense sticks burnt to their base. It had character and I liked it. Too bad they kicked me out after the first night after realizing the room had been reserved. The guesthouse promised me a replacement room but since the guests in that room decided not to check out on schedule, I was left to find another guesthouse. That was ok with me since the street was littered with guesthouses anyway.


(I really liked this $7 room too, there’s a prayer place next to it and the room smelled faintly of incense.)

So I find another one just opposite. Got me a nice room that had heat for $11/night. Except after one night, they called me during my Halong Bay tour and told me while cleaning the room, the shower head busted and water overflowed from the bathroom into the room itself so they had to move all my things. They didn’t have a replacement room so I was shipped off to yet another guesthouse down the street. Sorry to bore you all with all this but I guess it was a bit funny.

I don’t have much to say about Hanoi. It’s a city with people living their lives. There’s a big lake in the middle which draws couples every night around 9 pm. There are plenty of motorcycles around, just like anywhere else in Vietnam. There are a few Western brand shops around the lake but mostly Vietnamese shops selling clothes, souvenirs, tours, and all kinds of food ranging from typical Vietnamese noodles/rice to fancy pastries.


(Line of fancy “cyclos”.)

I visited the Ho Chi Minh Masaoleum and it was kinda cool to see his preserved body. It looked a lot like a wax figure lying down with its eyes closed. No pictures because cameras weren’t allowed in. Outside, we got to see his living quarters and work office space, which were beautiful yellow French-inspired buildings.


(HCM’s “House on stilts” where he lived for many years.)


(Lotus Pagoda.)

The water puppet show was one of the highlights of my stay. It was so entertaining I went to watch it again the following night (it was only $2 a ticket) but they sold out for the time slot I wanted. But definitely one of the highlights of my travels in Vietnam. I’ll be posting a video clip of it some time in the future so look out for it.

My day trip to Halong Bay was a bit disappointing as the cloudy and misty surrounding hindered the view. It might’ve been much better had the skies been clear and the sun out. We did stop by a massive cave that was full of stalactites and stalagmites that were beautifully lit from different angles with lights of different colors. I was really expecting to be blown away by Halong Bay but all it looked like were some big islands in water.


(Our boat.)


(Halong Bay.)


(Another view of Halong Bay.)


(Little girl taking her family around.)


(Inside the cave.)

Food-wise, I had a bunch of unique food I’ve never eaten before. The first meal I ate was at one of the oldest restaurants in Vietnam, “Cha Ca La Vong”, which spans 5 generations. They serve only one thing, “cha ca”, a grilled fish dish. It was also very pricey by Vietnamese standards at $7.50 for a small amount and when I asked them why it was so expensive (but in a friendly manner) they gave me a dirty look without an answer. The street it’s located on is named after them. Right after that, I ate some “che”, which are doughy balls soaked in sweet syrup. I also had “bun cha” which was a massive meal in itself, consisting of a big serving of “bun” (rice noodles) and a bowl of soup filled with meat and some other things. I’ve had other things to eat but the above are the ones I can remember the names of.


(“Cha ca”.)


(“Che”.)


(“Bun cha”.)

Hanoi, Vietnam Pics.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam
March 25th – 26th 2011

Former home of the Nguyen emperors. Sounded tempting so I had to stop by Hue. It was wet and rainy as usual so that always dampens a trip. Took a boat trip on the first day to visit several tombs of Nguyen emperors (Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and To Duc. Minh Mang’ had a massive and beautifully landscaped compound, Khai Dinh’s was a feat of interior design that was jaw-dropping, but To Duc’s wasn’t quite as eye-catching.

On another rainy day, I went to visit Vietnam’s version of the Forbidden City. It was a citadel, enclosed by high walls and moats. But sadly, a lot of the place was bombed during the Vietnam war so there wasn’t much else that remained of the emperor’s residence. There was an animated video that showed what it may have looked like based on old pictures and architectural research. A lot of it looks Chinese and so did all the letters engraved all over the citadel.

Hue, Vietnam Pics.

Ahoy, Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam
March 24th 2011

Small town about 4 hours north of Nha Trang. It maintains a very old traditional feel to it thanks to its location beside a river and the old Chinese-esque homes and shops that line the streets. The more I see Vietnam, the more I think of China. Prior to sometime in the 1940s, Chinese writing and architecture was used.


(Random street in Hoi An.)


(People traveling up and down the river with their motorcycles and bicycles.)


(Friendship Bridge.)


(Traditional Vietnamese dance performance.)

There are *plenty* of tailors around here, ready to make anything you want at good prices.


(My new business in Hoi An. I’m the next Vera Wang.)

Also, Hoi An has a specialty noodles called ‘cao lau’ which can only be authentic here because the water used to make the noodles has to come from a particular well here in Hoi An. There’s also “white rose” (ban bao vac ) which is wanton skins topped with shrimp. Stuff I hadn’t eaten before so it was good experience trying them out.


(Cao lau.)


(Ban bao vac.)

After walking around the historic Old Town, there wasn’t much else to do so I left after one night.

More Hoi An Pics.

Sea, sun, mud

Nha Trang, Vietnam
March 21st – 23rd 2011


(Sunrise at Nha Trang.)

I had originally wanted to go straight to Hoi An from Saigon thinking I would skip Nha Trang because I didn’t think there was much else there besides a beach but the lady at my guesthouse who helped me book my ticket told me Hoi An is WAY farther than I thought it was. I would have to take an 8 pm night-bus for 11 hours to reach Nha Trang where I would have to wait another 12 hours for the 7 pm night-bus to Hoi An (the only one), which would take me another 11 hours. So much for Saigon to Hoi An. And thank goodness because I found out Nha Trang was awesome.


(The inside of a typical sleeping bus in Vietnam. Take off shoes first.)

The moment the bus got there, I could feel that I would like the place. It had a very relaxed non-chaotic feel. I had arrived at 6 am but got accommodation secured pretty quickly and on top of that, decided to start off my day immediately with an 8:30 am boat-tour of the islands on the coast. I didn’t realize I should’ve brought my swimming trunks along because people had the opportunity to go snorkeling at some locations where the boat stopped. The trip ended with a fun performance by the boat crew members when they formed a make-shift band (with make-shift drums) and played various international songs. The tour guide would ask where everyone was from, and then invite various nationalities to come up on stage one by one where the band would play a song from their respective countries. We had a Russian, Japanese, British, and even a Polish song.


(Red Hot Chilli who?)


(Floating bar.)

I spent the following day bathing in mud and relaxing at the beach. I took a motorcycle ride to the Thap Ba Hot Springs and it was an interesting experience to feel like a pig bathing in a pool of fragrant mud that’s poured in from pipes on request. After the mud bath, I headed back to the beach to enjoy the sand, views, and my book.

I did some diving the next day. Sadly, visibility was quite poor at this time, about 2-3 meters, so it wasn’t the best conditions to capture the full beauty of down under. Our dive-master did bring an underwater camera so he snagged on pictures and videos of us diving. I’ve never had a picture of myself diving so it was nice to have one.


(Nha Trang is A-ok!)

I found a good joint for “bun bo hue” so I was eating it almost each night. Sometimes I would eat at a “com” (rice) joint where you pick what you want from several home-cooked dishes laid out. I would eat a “banh mi” (Viet sandwich) for breakfast each morning.


(Bun bo hue.)

I had heard in Saigon that it was raining in Nha Trang and was lucky to enjoy 3 days of sun because on the last day I was there, it was cold, windy, and wet. The beach was near empty. I had to wait out the entire day until my 7 pm bus to Hoi An and had little choice. Would’ve been better if I had scheduled to leave the night before and saved myself a night’s stay.

Nha Trang Pics.

Dog, it’s what’s for dinner

Saigon, Vietnam
March 15th – 18th 2011

I used to call this place “Ho Chi Minh City” but “Saigon” just rolls off the tongue much better.

It was relatively painless getting here. Caught a shared van to the border, got stamped by both Cambodian and Vietnamese immigration, then saw one of many tourist buses waiting for their clients to board so I paid $5 to go from the border to Saigon.

Saigon is a modern looking Asian city sans skyscrapers but they do have the odd high-rise here and there. After all, this is the economic capital of Vietnam. The backpacker area of Pha Ngu Lam is packed with places to stay, travel agencies, bars, restaurants, and many kinds of shops selling everything from clothes to bootleg DVDs. The place is constantly buzzing. There’s a piece of open space nearby which always has people jogging or people loitering around their motorcycles and watching people play “Jianzi” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jianzi)


(“Jianzi”)

The first thing that struck me about Vietnam is, almost everybody and their mothers are on motorcycles. Each time there’s a red light, they start clogging up the roads and once green hits, it’s like a dam bursting. Crossing traffic is really as suicidal as they say it is but the trick is to have no fear. If you wait and wait for the roads to clear up, you will never cross. Just step onto the road and walk, keeping your eye on both sides of the roads of course. Cars, buses, and motorcycles WILL be coming at you but they try to avoid you.


(Horde the road.)

I was really interested in visiting the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum so I started with a motor-ride to the palace. It was here that Saigon fell to the Communists, when tanks ran over the gates. The palace was quite modern and not a traditional looking palace. The rooms were well-decorated and one can imagine the leaders of countries meeting here. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge my camera and couldn’t take many pictures.

The War Remnants Museum really moved me. It was told with an anti-American voice. There was a floor with many pictures of the soldiers and victims of the Vietnam War and it was brutal to go through each one. I did not realize the USA used chemical weapons during the war. Dioxin, nicknamed “Agent Orange” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange), left a lasting mark on many people, then and now. So many kids borne after the war were deformed and mutated and the pictures of them were just brutal to look at but I went through each one, reading all the descriptions or stories. I would recommend everyone to make a trip here when they visit Saigon. It has been one of the best museums I’ve been to in 10 months of travel, maybe because the material interested me.

Another day, I took a tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Vietcong during the war. It was pretty cool to see how the tunnels were made and how small they were. Only small and skinny Vietcong could use them. There were 3 levels, each one serving a purpose, from living quarters to escape route into the Saigon River. There was a bigger version of the tunnels created for tourists to crawl through for the experience. It was very hot down there and it was exhausting to crawl through and I can’t imagine crawling through the real thing. Not only that, the Vietcong made some nasty looking traps to be used on the enemy. Let’s just say if you fell into one of their traps, you would have been stabbed by at least a dozen foot-long metal spikes.


(Typical tunnel entrance. No fatties allowed.)

Another day, I took a day-trip to visit the Mekong Delta. The bus took us to My Tho where we boarded a boat to visit several islands on the Mekong River, the main one being Ban Tre. We tried some famous Vietnamese coconut candy and visited several small towns on the islands but it was all set up for tourists and not very authentic. I did enjoy wearing the wide Asian straw hat all the boaters wore though. I held a bee honeycomb and I even held a python around my neck. They are such beautiful creatures.


(Packaging coconut candy.)


(She was only a few year’s old.)

I’ve had plenty of Vietnamese food in the USA, considering I’m pretty much 1/8th Vietnamese due to friendships and family relationships. But when my Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide told us that she knew of a place that served dog, I jumped at the chance to try it out. After the tour, I asked the guide to show me where it was and she took me through random streets and alleyways until we reached a small obscure place with several Vietnamese men sitting outside, eating and drinking. There weren’t any skinless dogs strung up though. The shop buys their meat from villages and chops them up. Thi (the guide’s name) ordered a plate of dog and it came roasted, looking a lot like roast pork pieces. I was more excited than afraid to try it. It also tasted a lot like roast pork. The proper way to eat it was to wrap it up in some minty-tasting leaves they provided, then dipping it into some special sauce, which might’ve been octopus or squid ink, I wasn’t sure what Thi told me. Anyway, Thi said she ate it all the time so she only ate a little bit, leaving me to finish most of it. As dog wasn’t a filling food, Thi told me of her favorite pho place nearby so I downed a big bowl of delicious pho, with all the different cuts of meat in it.


(If you didn’t know that was dog, would you eat it?)

Saigon, Vietnam Pics.