We were back in Asia after a fleeting visit to Europe for David & Suzanne’s wedding and also to celebrate Albert’s 60th birthday!
Originally scheduled to fly into Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”) on 6 Nov we had to wait until Mon, 7 Nov to finally do this because I had failed to fully research or more to the point remember that we needed visa approval prior to departing Bangkok. I just assumed it was another visa on arrival situation! Nevertheless we arrived on 7 Nov and started our Vietnam expedition in the great old city of HCMC (formerly Saigon).
We stayed at the Thanh Thuy Hotel, which was quite central to the tourist backpacker area so we were well located to explore the city by foot in the coming days.
After arriving late on 7 Nov we decided to stay local and wait until the next day for our well organized walking tour courtesy of Deborah and her fantastic research of the Lonely Planet.
We started the morning with some world famous Pho at the very popular Pho Quynh Restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. Following this the walking tour took in a number of key tourist sights including the Ben Thanh Central Market (probably the most authentic original copies, if not actually originals that had fallen off the back of a truck), Tran Nguyen Hai Statue, Fine Arts Museum, Rex Hotel, Opera House, Hotel de Ville (the last three definitely all worth a stop – check out our photos), Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Reunification Palace, Saigon Main Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and finally the War Remnants Museum!
Given the country’s fight for independence from French Colonialism during the Indochina period and more recently the US Vietnam War it is probably worth mentioning that the War Remnants Museum is a must visit place in HCMC. When entering the museum you are immediately hit with US Helicopters, Chinooks, Tanks, Fighter Planes and other artillery that was seized by the Vietnamese or left behind by the US in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Before entering the main building you journey is interrupted by a left turn into an area, which quite frankly graphically details the history behind the French Indochina period. Some of the happenings during this period are quite disturbing to read about let alone see in the pictures! Ho Chi Minh, the father / uncle to all Vietnamese, is a real hero to the people for his dedication and determination to liberate the country and gain independence from colonial rule back in 1954. It was very inspiring how the people of Vietnam worshipped this man, still do today and will do in future generations.
Moving on into the main building you get to experience what the war was like as there is a very comprehensive collection of photographic journalism from contributors who were on the ground from all parts of the world. One of the most prominent contributors was British photographer Tim Page, who dedicated a large chunk of his career to covering the war. As a matter of interest, of all places in the world Tim Page now resides in Brisbane, Australia! In any case his contribution, along with others, is very significant and telling in this museum.
According to the story inside the museum the Vietnam War cost the lives of over 3 million Vietnamese and about 60,000 US soldiers and allies. Those who did survive were also major casualties through the mental / physical scars and memories they would have to carry for the remainder of their lives. What was very sad to us were the pictures showing the after affects of Agent Orange on future Vietnamese generations. The pictures are horrifying because humans should NOT look like what was in the pictures.
Whilst in HCMC we also took out time to visit the Mekong Delta, and while our day tour was quite disappointing in terms of what the tour ending up offering us, we were told the 3 day tour was much better as you get to really see and experience the region around the delta.
Finally in HCMC we hired a motorbike, saddled up and ventured out to the Cu Chi Tunnels which was a challenging experience as we engaged ourselves amongst the millions of registered motorcycles in the city. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that never in our lives have we ever seen so many motorcycles in one city! It is really a most incredible experience to pull up at a set of traffic lights only to look around and see what at times must have been at least 200 fellow motorcyclists!
The Cu Chi Tunnels were very interesting - it was hard to believe how the Vietnamese built and survived in these very, very small spaces for significant periods of time! If you were an enemy it must have definitely been a Russian Roulette type of experience given the fields were laced with landmines and traps that would cause instant pain (and in most cases fatal events).
After safely returning from our bike journey to the Cu Chi Tunnels we boarded a local bus to Mui Ne Beach (north east) our next destination!
Mui Ne Beach
If you could imagine any place that is very chilled out and NOT yet destroyed by commercial activities then Mui Ne Beach is the place.
Probably three of the most chilled out days on our trip so far, Mui Ne is a kite surfing Mecca! It is most spectacular to take in the scenery, which climaxes around 3pm with close to 100 kite surfers cutting it up and flying in the sky! (check out the pictures). Also another great experience in Mui Ne was our very early morning trek to the white and red sand dunes. We were able to experience sunrise (see pictures) and it felt as though we were somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa! Quite spectacular!
Although, we as backpackers, weren’t staying in the 5 star digs, the food, people and beach were first class! The only thing to watch out for in Mui Ne is the over abundance of Ruskies, who from all my experiences in Asia are quite abrupt and sorry, in a lot of cases just plain rude. Note, it is also a distraction when reading the menus as they go Vietnamese, RUSKY and then finally English!
Nha Trang symbolizes everything western - partying to the max on a very limited budget is easily achieved (if desired)!
Probably not our most favoured place in Vietnam, but if cheap accommodation, food and drink are priority then this place will be top of your list.
We did manage to hire another motorcycle and get out to some of the local traps. We visited the Long son White Buddha and Po Nagar Towers which both have their obvious qualities, but also double up as having some of the best vantage points for seeing Nha Trang in landscape.
We also managed to make it to the Thap Ba Hot Springs which were one of our highlights in Nha Trang. It was certainly my first experience in hot springs - strange to be in a tub of mud salts and the floating part was another thing!
Moving on to the quaint French Colonial town of Hoi An…
An overnight bus journey saw us arrive early doors the next day – our bus drivers were the unfriendliness encountered on our entire trip thus far! Our accommodation was slightly outside the town perimeter, but nevertheless very nice and only a short 15 minute walk to the main streets.
Despite being a very small town, Hoi An very much symbolizes French Colonialism at its best as it is almost impossible to escape the foundations of the Indochina period! Nearly all buildings display some sort of influence from this period, although in many cases it is disappointing how maintenance of these magnificent structures is almost non existent! I guess the Vietnamese have kept them as a reminder of the Indochina period, but in no way want to glorify them through any type of ongoing restoration (or it just maybe be too expensive).
All in all we really enjoyed Hoi An and would definitely recommend it to our friends looking for a very low key, chilled out place.
Next stop was the Imperial City of Hue. Inside the Citadel lies the Imperial City which was once the capital of Vietnam and home to many of the country’s great Emperors.
It reminded us a lot of The Forbidden City in Beijing, but on a much less grander scale. This is exacerbated by the fact that only 48 of 120 buildings still remain as a result of French and US destruction during war time. Some buildings don’t exist anymore, but those that do now form part of a restoration program initiated by Vietnamese authorities in conjunction with foreign aide partners.
Tip: if you are on a budget then stay at the New Life Hotel as it is the best value for money place to stay in the world! Well that might be an exaggeration but for USD 8 you get fruit on arrival, a free mini bar (2 beers, 2 cokes, 2 large / small bottles of water, 8 bottles of tea drinks and 2 red bulls), breakfast and oh yes nearly forgot, a ROOM with balcony!
Running short on time we only had two days in the capital Hanoi. Although two or three days is sufficient, we were starting to feel a little succumbed to the rigors of travel…haha, yes it is a tough gig!
The walking tour organized again by Deborah, and well supported by our trusty and free Lonely Planet, was a highlight and is recommended for any visit to Hanoi. Our walk took us from the lake through nearly all of the Old Quarter - past street vendors, a plethora of custom made shoe stands, the central market (what an experience) and finally culminating at St Joseph’s Cathedral (opposite is a well earned drink at Hanoi House Bar & Café which is fantastically run by a local entrepreneur). We finished the evening with some more delicious Pho at the aptly named Pho 24!
Our final day in Vietnam was dedicated to visiting Uncle Ho’s Tomb. Situated inside the Presidential grounds and former residence of Ho Chi Minh, the man who symbolized a nation’s fight for independence lays to rest inside a spectacular tomb – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Although Uncle Ho passed away some 42 years ago his fully embalmed body remains on display inside a glass coffin and it can take a good 60 minutes to snake your way through the well guided human chain to pay your respect to this national hero. It is amazing to see how many Vietnamese turn up daily to pay respect to their hero. Before going make sure you check the situation inside the mausoleum because two months of every year he is sent to Russia for special embalmment treatment! It was a strange feeling to see this man in person considering how long ago he passed away, but it was well worth it. Legend!
Well, apologies to the delay in writing but it has been a tad difficult to say the least – Sri Lanka please get yourselves up to speed with high speed connectivity! Until next time, take care and be lucky!