Tâm Biet Vietnam, Susadei Cambodia!

This evening we left Ho Chi Minh City for Phnomh Penh where we will be spending 4 days before heading to Siem Reap. Obviously not many people fly this route as despite being an international flight, we flew on an ATR-72 which are the small prop the planes that fly the regional routes in New Zealand. No wonder it cost a lot – but we couldn’t be bothered with another long bus trip. Phnomh Penh is another reasonably large city. Population is similar to Auckland but seems crazy busy with the typical South East Asian traffic. We are going to stick close to our hotel tomorrow and not walk too far as it is well over 30 degrees and very humid. There is a rooftop bar with 2 for 1 happy hour cocktails so we’ll probably be spending our evenings up there.

Ho Chi Minh: Our first two days

Yesterday we flew into Ho Chi Minh City which is our last stop in Vietnam. It is even bigger population-wise than Hanoi, with approx 8.5 million people (a million more than Hanoi), despite the larger population it is also 1000 square kilometres less in land area so it is even more densely populated. There are more high rises here and everything is a bit newer/cleaner, at least in the areas we have been to. The CBD feels just like any other big city really, I imagine it feels like an asian/eastern version of Los Angeles or New York. Lots of flash hotels and office buildings, crazy lights and a lot of western brand names. Even the area we are staying has much wider footpaths and feels more ordered than Hanoi.

We are on a road that is about 6 lanes either direction, and in rush hour each lane will have about 3 scooters/motorbikes wide in it, the traffic is immense and there is zero chance of crossing the road here. Even the narrower roads in the city centre are much harder and scarier to cross than Hanoi as the traffic moves a lot faster and people seem much less willing to give way and go around you. The videos below are in the evening, not even close to rush hour.

When we arrived yesterday we went to the War Remnants Museum. This was a lot bigger and more comprehensive than the War Museum in Hanoi and also had a very big photo exhibition with a lot of photos taken by war photographers in the field. There was also a lot more detail given about the horrific injuries from napalm and phosphorus bombs used by the US and also the injuries and subsequent birth defects caused by agent orange – not just Vietnamese people but US soldiers that were hit by way of friendly fire.

Today we went to the Cu Chi tunnel complex which is about 50km from central Ho Chi Minh. These were tunnels dug by the Viet Cong to shelter from US bombing and to aid their guerilla warfare. We got there via speedboat up the Saigon river, the breeze from the speed of the boat was a welcome respite from the heat. It is similar/a bit hotter than Singapore (33 degrees today), but a bit less humid so slightly more tolerable. The tourist complex includes some of the tunnels, replicas of spike traps etc plus a shooting range. The tunnels have been expanded slightly to allow easier access for tourists but are still pretty small. I’d guess that the narrowest bits of the tunnels we went down are probably as wide as the widest bits of the original ones, with some sections being much narrower. I’m not a big guy but I think I’d be bigger than the average Viet Cong soldier. The 100m section of tunnel we crawled through was very hot and claustrophobic, I could crouch some of the way but was crawling to make it through the narrowest parts. I could only also just squeeze in the secret trap door entrance. There was an option to fire some assault rifles (AK, M16 or M1) and light machine guns(M60) at the shooting range but the price per bullet was high and there was a minimum amount of bullets you had to buy also, plus my shoulder is still giving me a fair amount of grief from my bike crash recently so thought the recoil of large caliber guns wouldn’t have been great for it.

One thing that you immediately notice about Ho Chi Minh City is the smog. It can be a clear day, but unless you look straight up you do not see blue sky. Hanoi did not have any smog like this, it must be the hotter temperatures here, it is also very still. It also has not rained for quite a while though they are due some in a few days. Tomorrow is our last day here, we fly out for Phnom Penh tomorrow evening. We are going to check out the zoo and botanic gardens tomorrow morning, then head back to the city centre to see the Reunification palance, the central post office and perhaps the city museum.

We have enjoyed our time here but are looking forward to something new in Cambodia. We feel like we are ending on a good note here in Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone seems a little friendlier here than some other parts of Vietnam, we are not sure if this is because they are a bit more receptive to foreigners/white people in the south given the political leanings here in the past. There is less touting here too which is nice, we have not really been harassed here at all apart from a couple of taxi drivers at the airport. It will be interesting to see what Cambodia is like. We are hoping to catch up with one of my colleagues who is also on holiday in Phnom Penh. She is about my age but moved to New Zealand when she was a teenager. She can still speak Khmer so hopefully she can give us some local knowledge!

Dalat: Cable cars and waterfalls

Today we took the cable car down to the Truc Lam pagoda. Unfortunately, we forgot that Vietnamese working hours tend to include a break between 11.30am and 1.30pm. We arrived at the top of the cable car at 11am, which meant that there was no time to explore the pagoda. We’ve visited a lot of pagodas here though, so we’re not too disappointed.

After our cable car ride, we walked the 4.5km down to the Datlana waterfall. (The Vietnamese don’t seem to ever walk anywhere; they either drive or scooter, so we must have looked nuts to them!) The waterfall is beautiful – not as polluted as the other waterways in Dalat – and well worth the trip.

For a late lunch, we visited the Super-C shopping mall – our first shopping mall in Vietnam. We were relieved to find a massive supermarket (more like K-Mart merged with a supermarket) to pick up some snacks. There don’t seem to be supermarkets in Vietnam, but there are lots of convenience stores. Prices at these convenience stores are rarely listed, so you have to ask the staff how much an item is, which can be challenging with our limited Vietnamese and their limited English!

The cafe above the Super-C shopping mall.

Tomorrow, we fly to Ho Chi Minh, where we will stay for two nights, before we leave for Phnom Penh in Cambodia. As you can probably tell by the change of tone in our posts, the novelty of Vietnam has worn off a bit now. A lot of people are friendly, but a lot of people aren’t. It’s totally understandable – there is a lot of recent history between Vietnam and the West – but it makes the trip less enjoyable. We’re looking forward to a change of culture in Cambodia.

Da Lat: The Wellington of Vietnam

Our bus trip from Nha Trang to Da Lat was awful. The road is really steep and twisty, and our driver threw us around the corners with reckless abandon, passed slower vehicles on blind corners, and pumped the brakes instead of slowing smoothly. I managed to hold my stomach contents until the last 15 minutes. We’ve decided not to spend more than two hours on a bus for the rest of our travel.

Da Lat, though, is beautiful. It is hilly, lush, and green. Instead of rice, it produces wine and strawberries (although it seems NZ strawbs are superior, as we have seen signs for them!). The temperature here is a comfortable 25 degrees. And, only two weeks into our trip, and we finally have some sunshine!

Da Lat also feels a little bit less ‘scammy’, as it is more of a holiday destination for Vietnamese than for foreign tourists. There are very few touts, and we feel like we can trust the people here a little bit more.

Today, we visited the ‘Crazy House’, a series of ‘houses’ with very unconventional architecture. It was pretty amazing! It still functions as a hotel, although I don’t think you would want to try to find your room at night after a couple of drinks…

For lunch, we had obviously found a place that was infrequently visited by Westerners… The locals stared at us while we were eating. The owner came out and sat with us for a while. He asked Matt how much Matt’s shoes and sunglasses cost. He then picked up Matt’s sunglasses from the table and tried them on, then asked if he could buy them! Usually it is the other way around. It was an uncomfortable but not negative experience.

Later, we walked around the lake to the flower gardens. They were good for photos but not really our thing, the pollution was noticeable and they weren’t as impressive as we had expected.

On the way home, we stopped by an icecream restuarant (aptly located on Pasteur St). I have been craving icecream since we left New Zealand! I had a delicious but unusual green tea and red bean sundae. Da Lat seems to be full of icecream stores and we might have to try another one tomorrow.

Nha Trang

We’ve spent one night in Nha Trang. Our hotel is very comfortable. This is the first time that we have had a shower with a curtain/door. Vietnamese consider their bathrooms ‘wet rooms’ and when you shower, water covers the whole bathroom floor.

The view from our hotel.

Nha Trang is nice but very touristy, and there is very little free/cheap stuff to do here. At least we haven’t been pestered as much by people wanting to sell things. The main targets are probably the rich-looking tourists staying in the fancy hotels.

We’re still working on our selfie skills. Nha Trang beach.

Later today, we catch the bus to Da Lat (4 hours). Apparently it is safe to drink the water in Da Lat. Our water filter takes about 10 minutes for 1 litre so we are looking forward to a break from that!

Hoi An: A romantic destination?

Yesterday, Matt and I tried local transport (rather than taxis and planes) to make our way from Hue to Hoi An. We caught the train to Da Nang (3 hours and 13 NZD each) over some insanely beautiful countryside, and then jumped on a local bus to Hoi An (another hour and only 1.50 NZD each).

Hoi An (population ~120,000 people) is a tourist hotspot, thanks to its reputation as a romantic spot for couples. Our hotel is just outside of the city centre, so it is quite peaceful. But, the city centre (‘Ancient Town’) is bustling. Although there is less traffic, the scooters go much faster and don’t seem to want to give way to you, so it is harder to cross the road than in Hanoi!

There has been a lot of rain here recently, but we lucked out today with only occasional showers. Hoi An is a much more beautiful place at night. During the day the river is muddy and you can see the rubbish and pollution.

Hoi An also has a reputation for excellent tailors. We visited one today at about 9.30am, and by 6.30pm we walked out with a two-piece suit and two business shirts for Matt (260 USD) and a pencil skirt for me (40 USD). We are travelling with carry-on only, so might have to wear a few extra clothes at the airport to keep our luggage below 7kg!

Matt with Eva, his suit tailor.

Tonight is the football final between Vietnam and Malaysia. Everyone here seems super-into it. We’ve seen people moving their TVs from their homes on the first floor to their restaurants on the ground floor, and the excitement on the street is awesome to watch!

5 minutes before the football started

One thing that we are becoming increasingly frustrated with is the touting. Even when we make it clear that we are not interested, touts stand in our way so that we have to walk around them, and follow us down the street. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but we find it creepy… no way am I buying your food/getting in your boat if you follow me down the street after I’ve said no.

Tomorrow, we fly to Nha Trang, before going to either Da Lat or Ho Chi Minh. There has been more rain than normal in the central part of Vietnam, so we are waiting to see whether Da Lat has some sunshine before booking our accommodation and transport.

Hue: Nguyen Dynasty seat of power

Today we did a somewhat guided tour of some of the most important sites in Hue. Hue is a city that originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyen lords. It is based around a 19th century citadel, which we visited last today. All the places we visited were the most impressive things we have seen so far, though we do not have pictures of everything as you are not allowed to take pictures inside most of the temples and the weather was quite bad today so it was hard to take pictures of some of the outside areas.

We were picked up from our hotel not by car as we expected, but by motorbike for a heart-rate increasing (and helmetless) ride to the boat station on the Perfume river. I don’t mind playing in traffic when I’m in control but being a passenger is hard for me! We took a boat ride down the Perfume River to the Thien Mu pagoda, the tallest in Vietnam.

We then went to three different tombs, the tomb of emperors Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Kai Dinh. All three were quite different owing to different eras and the different personal tastes of each emperor. Kai Dinh is the only emperor where the location of his burial is known, but he is under 9 metres of concrete. Both Minh Mang and Tu Duc have a tomb that you can see, but they may not be buried there, they may be somewhere else on the site. All the men who carried them to their final resting place were beheaded (which they volunteered to), so nobody knows exactly where they are buried.

Lastly we visited the Imperial city. This is an immense site with multiple temples, the royal palace etc. Both interior and exterior of the buildings are amazing, ornate carving, gilded details etc but you are not allowed to take photos inside of most places – same with the museum that has a lot of artifacts owned by various emperors. Rather than worshipping gods, there seems to be a lot of ancestor worship. Each emperor in the main temple had an altar dedicated to him which would be worshipped by emperors that followed. Some of the city was destroyed in the Tet offensive of the Vietnam war, only half to two thirds of the buildings remain, but some have been restored or rebuilt.

If you ever go to Vietnam we would highly recommend visiting Hue and seeing these places for yourself. Photos do not even come close to doing them justice. 

Hue: Rainy

Today we flew from Hanoi to Hue, leaving drizzle and 15 degrees for heavy rain and a humid 25 degrees. You could see all the flooded fields from the plane as we landed. The forecast is a bit better tomorrow, hopefully it improves as we have another day trip tomorrow on a boat down the Perfume River to various royal tombs and then back to the imperial city. The weather in central Vietnam has been unseasonably bad for this time of year, Da Nang and Hoi An which are our next destinations have had heavy flooding but again hopefully cleared by the time we get there. 

Hanoi: Our last day

Today was our last full day in Hanoi, we fly out for Hue on Wednesday the 12th. We are finally getting used to the crazyness and sort of remembering where some of the streets go, but the old quarter is still very hard. The bigger roads around Ba Dinh Square were easier to find out way around but just as daunting to cross.

Today we went to several of the most important places in Hanoi. We walked to Ba Dinh Square were Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of independence in 1945 and where he now lies in the Mausoleum built after his death. He lies preserved similar to Lenin does in Russia, despite wishing to be cremated. The Mausoleum is under constant guard and you must walk through silently, without stopping and no photography is allowed. In the same area is a museum and also a house where he lived and worked. You are allowed to take pictures here but it seemed better to just observe and experience as it is a very solemn place. There is still a huge amount of reverence for the man they call “Uncle Ho”. Also in the area is the One Pillar Pagoda, the presidential palace and the current government buildings.

We visited some other temples in the area, you have to pay a small fee to enter but it is worth it to see them and they were much quieter than the Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kiem lake which we did not go into as it was far too busy.

We also visited the Imperial Citadel which is amazing and the war museum, did not get too many photos in the war museum of the outdoor exhibits as it was raining quite hard. Our last stop for the day was the Hoa Lo prison which was mostly demolished for modern developments but the gate house and some other adjoining areas remain as a museum. This was built by the french colonialists in the late 1800’s and housed many Vietnamese prisoners in atrocious conditions. When the Vietnamese reclaimed their country and gained independence it was then used a prison housing American POW’s in the Vietnam war including former US senator John McCain.

We have been dining on a lot of street food here, mostly Banh My, but had a meal tonight in a basic restaurant down the road from our hotel. Food here is very cheap especially in basic restaurants/eating houses of which there are literally hundreds in the old quarter. Tonight we had a huge bowl of noodles, beef and vegetables and an iced tea each for 110000 dong which is a bit under $7NZ.

Hanoi: Day trip to Ha Long Bay

We decided to splurge and go on a day tour of Ha Long Bay, one of UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage sites. We booked a tour through our hotel for $50 USD each. After the chaos of Hanoi the day before, we were looking forward to being herded around by a tour guide.

Ha Long bay literally means ‘descending dragon’. As Vietnamese legend has it, the Vietnamese were under attack, and the Mother Dragon and her children descended to earth to help the Vietnamese defend themselves. When the enemies’ ships approached, the dragons spewed emeralds to form a wall and stop the ships. Those emeralds are now the islands that you see in Ha Long bay.

The trip to Ha Long Bay takes about 3 hours from Hanoi. It is about 170km, but it takes a long time because of the chaotic traffic and poor roading. Once there, all thirty of us were shepherded onto a small boat for lunch while pulling out from the dock.

Ha Long Bay is beautiful. We had heard that it was polluted and too busy, but the water looked clear, and we found the number of boats to be enough to add to the charm without feeling over-populated.

First, we stopped at a floating dock for a short bamboo boat ride. There was an option for kayaking, but Matt and I are still a bit disabled from our bike crashes a month ago. The bamboo boat was pleasant, though.

Then, we visited the Heaven Palace cave. It was phenomenal – we’ve never seen anything like it before. The photos don’t do it justice.

We were then herded back onto the boat for the long trip back to Hanoi. We enjoyed the day and it was good to have a short break from Hanoi. We had one day left for sightseeing before flying to Hue on Wednesday 12 December.