A Travellerspoint blog

The Mekong River Delta

This photogenic River; rice bowl of Vietnam, site of the Viet Cong resistance against Diem's regime

sunny 29 °C
View China & SE Asia on SEAsia.Mon's travel map.

large_55Picture_045.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1238.jpg

The opening scene from Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' with the throb throb throbbing of the American war helicopters keeling low and threateningly, loud and insistent, over the expanse of the wide Mekong was an image so large in my mind as I looked down now on that brimming river from my hotel room 11 floors above it on Can Tho, capital of the Mekong River Delta's, riverside road. Here we were at last.

large_Mekong_River.jpg
large_2009_1230S..que0655.jpg

Against all urgings to take a guided tour of the Mekong River Delta, we had set off at 6am that morning from our comfortable hotel in Saigon and taken a short taxi ride to the bus stand at the Ben Thanh marketplace to catch a local bus to the rural long distance bus station at Mien Tay in old Saigon, the set-off point for us to be ferried the four-hour route here. We were full of doubts as we had been discouraged by the staff of our hotel, by tour companies, by fellow travellers on our travel forum, by hotel guests who shared our breakfast table, from going independently on this adventure; not to undertake this remote journey by ourselves but rather to be taken there in the safety and convenience of a tour group!

At the Mien Tay bus station, as we waited for the bus departure time, we ventured into the toilets and were amused to encounter facilities reminiscent of those last seen in China, one simply a little hole in the cement no larger than a small pipe.

Mien Tay Bus Station

Mien Tay Bus Station

Toilet, Mien Tay Bus Station

Toilet, Mien Tay Bus Station

Vendors on the bus, Mien Tay Bus Station

Vendors on the bus, Mien Tay Bus Station

We were worried, too, having heard how dangerously the bus drivers throughout Vietnam plied the roads, notorious for their kamikaze driving and cavalier attitude, I have heard of travellers losing their lives with these crazy drivers dodging at breakneck speeds along crowded roads, the cowboys of Vietnam. Ever since we entered Vietnam at Hekou, the Chinese border town on the Red River five weeks earlier, we had purposefully made sure to always travel by train, all the way, north to south.

But, there were no passenger trains in the Mekong River Delta.

True to form the bus driver did drive dangerously to the point that one traveller walked down the aisle of the bus to remonstrate with him - despite his noisy gesticulations, however, the driver pretended he did not understand him and, muttering under his breath, continued in this cavalier manner. The only respite for us being glimpses at the oily mud-brown canals ever hinting at the larger River, the mighty Mekong beyond.

Truly Can Tho, our destination, was the most grubby, totally foreign, dusty capital city we had encountered in Vietnam. Catching a taxi into town we were dismayed at the level of hotel accommodation available to us. After looking into some of the hotels on offer, we walked into one of the more highly recommended and least dire sounding hotels in the guidebook expecting some respite from the very low standard we had encountered thus far. This too turned out to be a rundown establishment with overpriced, cramped rooms, the cheaper ones around a row of noisy air conditioners. The owners obviously believed that being near the Mekong River made up for everything else.

Nearly despairing, we came back down to the reception area wondering what we were doing in this awful place, hot and sticky, with nowhere to sleep. We asked the very sympathetic receptionist here whether she could recommend a better standard of accommodation, dare we say it, on the river and at a reasonable price, and she pointed us in the direction of the Hotel International - I think she thought we would be back! Anyway, we pulled on our backpacks and hoped to find a decent place to stay - we were now regretting not having taken that guided tour.

The Hotel International was an older establishment, with slightly worn carpets, no internet connection but a lovely view over the Mekong River and good size rooms, well-kept by a very efficient housekeeper, all for US$33. We quickly checked in and unpacked, relieved, and despite the shabby room, stood overcome at the immensity of this river, all else forgotten.

The housekeeper obliged us with one of the ubiquitous giant thermos flasks, present throughout Vietnam, full of hot water for a refreshing cup of tea, which always makes one feel at home. After a quick cuppa, we ventured out onto the streets for a well-needed meal, finally deciding on a little restaurant set in a French colonial building, looking out over the large statue of Ho Chi Minh that dominates the main square.

Typical Ho Chi Minh statue, Can Tho

Typical Ho Chi Minh statue, Can Tho

We hungrily ordered, and were greeted with one of the worst meals we encountered in Vietnam – a greasy noodle dish of messy tasteless vegetables. This after the Rough Guide had said that one could find some of the “best restaurants in the Delta” here!

Disappointed, and very inclined to get on the next bus out of town, we decided to head to the river shoreline and find out about exploring the famed Mekong River on a local sampan. As I have already mentioned, we had elected not to go with the admittedly cheap tour groups offering packages as we had wanted to be able to choose our own hotel, we weren’t convinced by the reviews of the hotels offered by some of the companies; and also didn’t like the idea of being part of a tour group, visiting coconut candy and rice noodle factories, not having enjoyed our previous experiences of tours and very much being independent travellers. I don't mean to repeat myself but this was a huge decision as most travellers do only visit the Mekong River and its delta with some undeniably very reputable tour groups and we were quoted very cheap prices, it was something we seriously considered.

We had been advised by other travellers to walk along the river and speak to the boatsmen. Though they were mostly women!

The first few local boatswomen who approached us were asking exorbitant amounts to take us around and we wondered again whether we had made the right decision in not taking a tour. After speaking to a few more people, we were approached by a middle-aged lady in a striped top, full of spark and humour, who offered us a trip to see two of the more interesting floating markets along the river for what seemed like a reasonable price (300000 dong, about US$30). We arranged to meet her at the same small pier the next day at the very early hour of 5.45am. We parted after assuring her that we would be back the next day as arranged and headed home for an early night.

The next morning, after quickly pulling on a few layers and slapping on some sunscreen, we made our way to our chosen meeting point, wondering if our boatswoman would keep her appointment with us or whether we should have just slept in.

As we approached the little jetty there she was, waving, with a broad smile on her face. She ran towards us and hugged me, so happy that we had not let her down and then guided us to her wooden sampan with a large motor at the back. I was slightly dubious about a woman’s motor boat skills, I’m ashamed to say, but she confidently led us onto her boat, made sure our weights were balanced out, handed us a little flask filled with a large ice block, a straw and the famous very black, very sweet Vietnamese coffee, which I found upon this, my first taste of it, to be surprisingly moreish and very refreshing in the fast warming sunshine, and set us on our way.

large_2010_0330S..etc1168.jpg

I had wondered if we shouldn’t have got out earlier to catch the sunrise, as many travellers advise, but it proved a good decision to leave when we did as the dawn was quite dark enough and, anyway, difficult to take photos in. As the sun began to rise the light reflected across the massive river.

As we glided through the muddy waters of the river, we passed palm treed banks with little houses along them, a large settlement of shanty houses right on the river banks, made up of any material available, ramshackle stilt settlements built into the water; boats large and small painted with characteristic round eyes on the front; long trawlers carrying sand along the banks, a dog running along the deck barking at passersby; warehouses with cranes outside; the daily ferries crossing the river to move scooters and foot traffic to the other side, their early morning commute.

large_2010_0330S..etc1220.jpg
large_7Stilt_Houses.jpg

We could tell we were approaching the first floating market, the busier Cai Rang market, when we came upon crowds of boats, like a scene from some kind of haphazard Grand Canal in Venice; boats jostling and bumping into one another, each with a bamboo pole at the end with an example of their wares hanging from it to advertise what they sold. As we passed each boat, slowly now, our boatswoman having switched from her motor to two oars, we could see the bustle of activity involved in running your own “stall”, each piling up their produce high on their boats, moving children and dogs out of the way as they passed their sold items on to another purchasing boat. The markets are not used by the general population of these towns but are more like wholesalers, selling to shopkeepers who then sell to the public, probably mostly far down the river in Saigon! We observed with interest the people who both lived and worked on these boats, washing hung out to dry on deck, a rooster standing proud to give the morning alarm call. Our boatswoman rowed us close to a boat from where sizzling and the general sounds and smells of cooking could be perceived. She suggested we order something to eat and so we simply asked for a portion of what they were selling, unsure of what we would be offered. It was delicious! Marinated, slightly sweet pork with rice and pickled vegetables; it was definitely a favourite meal.

large_2010_0330S..etc1193.jpg
Breakfast on the Mekong River

Breakfast on the Mekong River


large_9Dragon_Fruit.jpg
Typical bamboo poles, indicating the type of produce for sale to the trade, Cai Rang Market

Typical bamboo poles, indicating the type of produce for sale to the trade, Cai Rang Market


large_2010_0330S..etc1206.jpg
Warehouse, Mekong, Can Tho

Warehouse, Mekong, Can Tho

After observing the market for a little longer we fired up the motor and moved on through the wide expanse of this great river, and on to Phong Dien market, some 10 kms further west, a smaller, more charming market. This was a lot less crowded and thus easier to observe. It is sad that these markets, an intrinsic part of Mekong Delta life, are actually disappearing as the Vietnamese begin to rely more on road transportation for their goods.

large_2010_0330S..etc1251.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1215.jpg
large_Boats.jpg
Me and our boatswoman on her sampan

Me and our boatswoman on her sampan


large_2010_0330S..etc1257.jpg

We set off to see the canals of the Delta, smaller channels running off the river, giving one an even closer glimpse into riverside life. Venturing into these palm fringed canals, past children sitting on verandas set over the water; large fishing nets, with wooden poles at each corner, hung over the water like tents towering over the small waterway; people ran to and fro along the dust paths on either side of the canal, and we passed houses with homemade boat shelters erected in the water outside to cover their main form of transportation.

large_2010_0330S..etc1339.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1309.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1336.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1342.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1343.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1353.jpg

Sadly, we had to stop a good few times for our boatswoman to disentangle bits of plastic bags from her motor blades, a sign of the pollution which also seems to be a part of the riverscape.

large_2010_0330S..etc1360.jpg
large_2010_0330S..etc1364.jpg

Unfortunately, because of our initial experiences with accommodation, lack of internet, bad food, we had hastily booked our onward journey to Chau Doc with Mailinh Bus Company the previous night, and so we needed to cut short our expedition on the water in order to get back to shore to pack and be ready for the taxi that was picking us up at about midday, our boatswoman even dropping us off right in front of our hotel, and clumsily pushing me up onto shore, as there was no jetty to climb onto. We were not disappointed though as we had been treated to a very thorough journey through the Mekong, easily five hours actually, and were pleased in the end to have chosen independent travel over a tour.

After such a poor first impression of Can Tho, just before we left, we were directed to a little Italian restaurant which doubled as an internet cafe where we checked mail, made plans for further travel and had a very tasty meal, and we felt sorry as we waited for our taxi that we had been too hasty in dismissing what Can Tho had to offer us.

Anyway, off we set in a little Mailinh minibus, packed full of passengers, for the two hour plus journey to Chau Doc, another Mekong River Delta town and the main 'border town' to Cambodia.

large_2010_0330S..etc1367.jpg

Upon reaching Chau Doc, we again took advantage of the complimentary taxi service offered by Mailinh to ferry its passengers from the dusty bus station in the middle of nowhere, to the centre of town. Both we and the other two passengers who shared the taxi with us had the same idea – to head for one of the only two hotels set on the river – the Victoria being the first, and out of our price range, and then this hotel, the Thuan Loi hotel, which was renting rooms for US$10. The other travellers decided to stay, swayed by the lovely location, but the rooms were a little too rudimentary and uncomfortable for us and we left to go into the centre of town, through the market which takes up a large part of the street next to the riverfront and another couple of streets perpendicular to it. Eventually after finding the next few hotels equally basic or full, we asked for a recommendation and were directed to the Song Sao hotel, set around a large square, dominated by a Buddhist temple.

The hotel was centrally located, Muslim owned and although obviously not on the water, had good size rooms and internet in the reception area, so we decided to stay there. The room had a nice ambience, although the bathroom facilities were a little basic.

Chau Doc was again a bit of a dusty, ramshackle town, but full of charm nonetheless; its bustling market, its location on the swollen river, with large weedlike plants that covered the water surface, floating lazily along behind the boat traffic, and with floating houses all around the riverside.

large_2010_0330S..etc1369.jpg

As we had been on a thorough tour of the Mekong River in Can Tho, we took the opportunity to relax in Chau Doc, to regularly venture back down to the Thuan Loi hotel with its rickety wooden steps that led down to a deck set on the river, offering the best view and where everyone chose to have their nightly sundowner.

large_2009_1230S..que0681.jpg
large_2009_1230S..que0682.jpg
large_2009_1230S..que0685.jpg

Eating was also difficult in Chau Doc, and after one disappointing meal at Vinh Phuoc hotel, the following night we decided to go - against our hotelier’s advice, who was worried that we would get sick from the food - and try the stalls set up around the Buddhist complex outside. I dined on my last Bun Cha for this trip here – heavenly!

After lunch in the market the following day, we stumbled upon a store selling Vietnamese baked goods. One of the cakes looked interesting, a sponge garnished with red and orange (what we thought may be fruits of some kind) so we bought it. It turned out that the red toppings were pieces of meat, similar to salami, carefully cut into pieces and placed on top, alongside the pieces of glazed peach! Needless to say, after a couple of slices, we gave the rest to the staff at our hotel, finding the flavours to be a bit too much of an acquired taste.

large_2009_1230S..que0671.jpg
The seller of the unusual cake that we bought

The seller of the unusual cake that we bought


Glazed duck and quail, Chau Doc Market

Glazed duck and quail, Chau Doc Market


Quail with quail's eggs, local speciality

Quail with quail's eggs, local speciality


Lunch at the market

Lunch at the market

We enjoyed exploring the town and generally relaxing but we needed to book our tickets onward into Cambodia: we decided to go with the Hang Chau boat company, the most recommended one by fellow travellers on the forums. However, in order to go through the border and pay for our visas, we needed to source US Dollars, which would otherwise be very expensive at the border itself. The banks in Chau Doc did not sell dollars, and so we were recommended to the jewellery stores! These were also difficult and we were unable to get dollars from them as they said that they had run out. I believe they were really hedging their bets and waiting to see what the rate would be like the next morning with it being late in the afternoon - the dollar had been ever more expensive the nearer we got to Cambodia, even starting with Saigon! So, back to the drawing board. Worried now, we went into one of the hotels and asked if they could help, and they offered to sell us some dollars at the same price the jewellery stores were mooting before they changed their mind – hoorah! We bought both our speedboat tickets and our dollars from them as they wanted both sales to conclude the deal - a hard afternoon of business!

large_2009_1230S..que0680.jpg

The morning of our boat journey from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh I woke at about 4.30am when I heard a low dong like the time being chimed on a public clock in the west - I counted the dongs thinking there would be four or five as I guessed that was the time. Well, they rang out for the next hour. I got up regularly to look and see where this sound was coming from. There was a smart new Buddhist temple in the square - in fact, it dominated the town square. When the first sounds rang I had heard stirring in the hotel like people getting up when their alarm rings in the morning. And, when I looked out at the streets, people were gradually filling the streets, walking, heading somewhere on their bicycles, scooters starting to drive around, people gathering to do their exercise in the square, even a rat playfully chasing a sparrow as it darted away and back, teasingly!

And on and on went this dong, dong, dong - lowly echoing.

large_2009_1230S..que0659.jpg

This made me think of Buddhism here in Vietnam - everyone has heard in the press obviously about Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức the Buddhist monk who drove himself to Saigon and sat down at a busy Saigon road intersection and burnt himself to death in protest against Diem's government in 1963 with its persecution of the Buddhists, among others, during the recent Vietnam/America War. This act, and others in its wake, were hugely influential and led to numerous protests against Diem and his regime with the people of south Vietnam supporting the protests. Diem dealt brutally with the Buddhists with his famed secret police ambushing the temples in the middle of the night, injuring and killing many monks. Unrest reigned and this was a turning point in the war, leading the way to Diem's downfall and setting the war in favour of the Viet Cong.

Mention should also be made of the famed Cu Chi Tunnels here in the Mekong Delta which we had foregone visiting, as we didn't like tours and because they had become very commercial, a popular site for tourists: it was regrettable, as these tunnels are very historic and were hugely instrumental in the Viet Cong winning both this war and defeating the French 20 years previously: they were a network of tunnels, more than 200 kms in Cu Chi alone, there are many other sites, dug over 40 years during both these aforementioned wars, and were laid out with living areas, kitchens, dormitories, hospitals, storerooms, armories etc, with the tactical use of trap doors and air filtration systems - for example, even their cooking smoke was diverted above ground a great distance from where they were, to throw the enemy off their scent, and they had exit points under the very water! In some American camps at night, the soldiers often woke in surprise to shots seemingly coming from nowhere, totally unaware of the whole system of Vietnamese underground tunnels that lay below them!

My thoughts set off, now particularly as I was leaving Vietnam, on the American war centred around this area and I realised that here, particularly in the south, was where the fighting started again, igniting this second war. Ho and the senior communist leaders in the North 'were still pre-occupied with repairing the devastation wrought by the French and with the aftereffects of the land-reform disaster' in the late 1950s (Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie') - they had made huge mistakes in their first attempt at governing (in the North) which took years to rectify, having been overzealous and upsetting the peasant population there, and were now too busy setting things right, and so were not ready to fight - but the southern cadres took up arms, now being on the front, tired of being victimised and harried by the Ngo Dinhs who were financed by the Americans in the south.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I sat in our hotel dining room overlooking this central square with its prosperous and newly built Buddhist temple, hurrying down breakfast with our departure for Cambodia imminent, and realised, after so many visits to Buddhist temples throughout our stay in Vietnam, how much I hadn't comprehended and had underestimated the strength, the influence, and how central, Buddhism seemed to be to these wonderful people, the Vietnamese.

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 15:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged blogsherpa Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon: Vietnam's food capital, with its teeming traffic, French colonial architecture. Gateway to the Mekong River Delta

sunny 31 °C
View China & SE Asia on SEAsia.Mon's travel map.

Scrolling through a travel forum researching Ho Chi Minh City on the internet I came across one writer's question:-

"I have four days in Saigon, any suggestions on what I should do while I'm there?"

and, in among the replies, the response from one experienced traveller was two words "Dine out"! We ourselves spent four full days in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it's more commonly called by locals (and train timetables!) and I just didn't get enough of the food.

We were lucky enough to be recommended to what, in my limited experience, was the best Vietnamese restaurant in Vietnam, Quan An Ngon.

large_Vietnam___..dia_006.jpg
Water feature, Quan An Ngon

Water feature, Quan An Ngon


Thinking there was nobody at the counter...

Thinking there was nobody at the counter...


Array of ingredients at Quan An Ngon, yum!

Array of ingredients at Quan An Ngon, yum!


large_Vietnam___..dia_012.jpg
Sitting in Quan An Ngon, favourite restaurant in HCMC

Sitting in Quan An Ngon, favourite restaurant in HCMC

Set in a large restored colonial building with innumerable verandahs and levels, simply but prettily decorated, the outer verandah is lined with the different dishes available from barbecued meats and fish to fresh green vegetables and herbs and includes stations where the chefs prepare the unusual Vietnamese sweets: che which are dessert soups often coconut-milk based and with tapioca pearls, coloured glutinous jellies and other unusual ingredients; and sticky sweet rice-flour cakes of various colours.

The desserts section, Quan An Ngon

The desserts section, Quan An Ngon


Chè Sương Sa Hột Lựu - Jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk traditional Vietnamese pudding, Quan An Ngon

Chè Sương Sa Hột Lựu - Jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk traditional Vietnamese pudding, Quan An Ngon

Other examples of these unusual sweets with such strange evocative tastes were Che Dau Xanh Nuoc Dua or mung beans in coconut milk; and Banh La Nua Nuoc Dua or sweet cake with pineapple flavour and coconut milk.

Although we set ourselves the task of trying something different every day, we did have our favourites, which were the Bo Nuong Muoi Ot or grilled beef with chilli salt served with seasoned toast, and their own take on my personal favourite meal of all my travels in Vietnam, Bun Cha Ha Noi! You're given a plate divided up into sections of fresh cold vermicelli noodles; grilled marinated pork; and an array of green herbs, most of which you'll probably never have seen or tasted before. With your chopsticks, you then help yourself to a small portion of each of these ingredients, placing them in a smaller bowl which is always provided for you, and finish it off with a spoon or two of the mouthwatering Vietnamese fish sauce, which you then mix all together and devour heartily. As one blogger's byline goes: "Oh Bun Cha, how I yearn for you so", I echo that thoroughly!

Bun Cha, favourite Vietnamese meal, Quan An Ngon

Bun Cha, favourite Vietnamese meal, Quan An Ngon

I think you could visit Quan An Ngon every day of the year and always try a new dish, their menu is so varied, their ingredients so tantalising.

When not dining out on delicious Vietnamese food, we only had to turn the corner near our hotel to arrive at the equally excellent Tandoor restaurant which is, I believe, in some way affiliated with the restaurant of the same name in Hanoi. Slightly more expensive than the Hanoi establishment, they nevertheless served deliciously cold and refreshing sweet lassi and one of the best Tandoori Chickens I have ever had, so worth a visit if you feel like a change from Vietnamese.

Luckily we stayed near to these great restaurants at the Spring Hotel in the upmarket Dong Khoi area near the famous Caravelle Hotel. Originally we were concerned that we had picked an out of the way location too far from the popular Pham Ngu Lao area where most backpackers stay, but we took a walk there and although there's a definite buzz, nevertheless we were pleased with our nice hotel and pretty streets, close to the old Hotel de Ville, the museums of Saigon, as well as the Dong Khoi street with its fine silk shops.

People's Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville), HCMC

People's Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville), HCMC


large_Picture_040.jpg

Moving around Saigon is always a talking point among travellers as the traffic is even busier than Hanoi's and although there is the odd traffic light to allow the pedestrian some respite from the relentless unceasing flow of traffic, these are few and far between and many of the scooters pay no attention to them anyway, which makes crossing the street hazardous at the best of times. Don't be surprised to find scooters speeding past you on the pavement, to the left, and the right, just missing you, swerving around - before rejoining the traffic further down the road.

A common sight in Vietnam is the scooter with more than two people on it, some have even five or six: babies and young children are wedged between adults or often slung on their mother's hip. I was initially alarmed at this casual attitude to child safety but I have only ever witnessed one accident in my month sojourn in Vietnam, they obviously have mastered the art of living dangerously.

The scooter is one of the most common forms of transport in Vietnam and it is amazing how versatile they prove to be: arriving at any bus or train station, among the taxis and touts calling out to passengers are always moto drivers offering to take one's luggage (we have a large backpack, a suitcase and numerous smaller bags!) and also, in our case, the two of us on the back of a moto to our hotel. This never ceases to surprise me and I've not quite got up the courage to test this method of travel! Mind you, we have frequently been passed by motos laden down with cages or baskets filled with a clamour of at least 20 or 30 ducks quacking and protesting; or a couple of squealing pigs being taken to whatever fate awaits them.

Saigon traffic

Saigon traffic



Besides sightseeing, with it being the festive season (alas now more than 2 months hence!) we had a little look at the shops in Saigon. In one department store, we wandered past a huge Christmas display of tinsel, lights and 'snow-covered' Christmas trees (the temperature outside being 30 degrees plus!!) and, set in the middle of all this, there was a booth where two fairies dressed in white welcomed an eager wide-eyed queue of little children lining up to sit with the 'fairies' and to make their Christmas wish; pop versions of Christmas songs played from speakers nearby, I left Saigon with Jingle Bell Rock ringing in my ears! The streets of Saigon were also decorated with some of the most professional Christmas lights I've seen, they would have easily beaten last year's Oxford Street display with its minimalist look. Based around the red pointsettias that are used as a natural Christmas decoration here, they made even the Vietnamese driving by on their scooters stop to take a photo.

Christmas lights in Saigon!

Christmas lights in Saigon!



This isn't a rarity in Vietnam: Christmas decorations, whole shops dedicated to santa outfits and Christmas trinkets, as well as carols blasting from any speaker around were everywhere, even at Quan An Ngon where the songs ranged from jingle bells to Christian songs unrelated to the holiday. A little surprised by the Christmas spirit in a mainly non-Christian country, we asked our hotel receptionist whether the Vietnamese exchange gifts on Christmas Day and she said they didn't. The festivities were obviously just too contagious!

Christmas in Quy Nhon

Christmas in Quy Nhon


Nativity scene in shop window, Quy Nhon

Nativity scene in shop window, Quy Nhon



Saigon is not a city full of sights, but it is home to the place where the war was ended by the northern Vietnamese army when they crashed their tanks through the gates of the now-Reunification Palace, which was then the Presidential Palace, to declare VC rule throughout Vietnam. Many of the palace rooms remain as they were in those days and as such they are a remarkable collection of 60s and 70s interior design, which obviously quite a bit of money went into furnishing. This was the main point of interest for us in visiting the Reunification Palace: lavish reception areas, colourful gambling rooms, an old cinema, the former helipad.

Pow wow table, Reunification Palace

Pow wow table, Reunification Palace


Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


Sixties-style interior design in the Reunification Palace!

Sixties-style interior design in the Reunification Palace!


large_Vietnam___..dia_027.jpg
Helipad at the Reunification Palace, HCMC

Helipad at the Reunification Palace, HCMC

Then in the basement, one can walk through a series of underground tunnels or corridors which include a war room, communications rooms and a bedroom for the head of state in emergency situations. I'm not sure I would recommend the Reunification Palace as a must-see if you only had a day in Saigon, but it is cheap to visit (15,000 dong) so if you fancy a wander through these historical buildings, stuck in an age, and re-living this time, then perhaps spend some time here.

Radio communications room underground in Reunification Palace

Radio communications room underground in Reunification Palace



Much more moving for us was the nearby War Remnants Museum, set in the former US Information Service building, with old US weaponry and aircraft in the gardens outside. Inside, photos of Vietnamese villagers in terror as they are about to be shot by American soldiers stand alongside pictures of victims and their devastated villages, children begging for their parents' lives and the ugly effects of the use of chemical warfare (Agent Orange etc), which are still being felt today.

Upstairs, a large section dedicated to photographers fallen in the war along with their work, movingly documenting moments in that terrible struggle, are testament to the futility of war. Outside, an exhibition of methods of torture and the "tiger cages" in which POWs were kept a visible demonstration of the suffering undergone. All of this was brought much more to life for me after I began reading Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie' all about one very patriotic American man's steady disillusionment with the war in Vietnam. The book also shows how much of a mistake the war was and the total waste of lives as they failed to account for the tenacity of the Vietnamese people and the difficulties of guerilla warfare.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

One of the more interesting areas of Saigon to visit is Cholon, the city's Chinatown, and we took a pricey taxi ride there from the centre of town, although I believe the bus system is pretty good in Saigon. Cholon is a real mixture of Chinese symbols and buildings, pagodas abound with their pretty carvings, gilded wood and large incense cones with smoke curling off them, lit by worshippers, an offering to the gods. A large dragon fountain with smaller dragon heads poking up around it dominates one of the parks in this area's bustling streets.

Binh Tay Market, Cholon

Binh Tay Market, Cholon


Detail with paper lantern, temple, Cholon, Saigon

Detail with paper lantern, temple, Cholon, Saigon


Pillar with dragon feature round it, Buddhist temple, Cholon, Saigon

Pillar with dragon feature round it, Buddhist temple, Cholon, Saigon


Mural, there's a story to be told, Buddhist temple, Cholon, Saigon

Mural, there's a story to be told, Buddhist temple, Cholon, Saigon


Chinese mural, Cholon, Saigon

Chinese mural, Cholon, Saigon


Chinese temple, Cholon, Saigon

Chinese temple, Cholon, Saigon


Drinks seller, Cholon, Saigon

Drinks seller, Cholon, Saigon

Caged birds, probably for sale, Cholon, Saigon

Caged birds, probably for sale, Cholon, Saigon

At the end of a long road of pagodas is the Cholon Mosque with its less ornate design dominating the skyline. We stopped in at a halaal restaurant run by Malaysians adjacent to the mosque for a little lunch before carrying on with our sightseeing.

Cholon Mosque

Cholon Mosque

On another day we passed by the 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral with its missing stained glass windows, a result of bombing in World War II, and the French colonial Central Post Office.

A wonderful feature of Saigon is the many colonial buildings dotted around the city, including the impressive grey building which houses the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. All of these aspects give Saigon its unique character.

large_Vietnam___..dia_108.jpg
Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon


Ho Chi Minh City Museum

Ho Chi Minh City Museum


Open air barber, Saigon

Open air barber, Saigon


large_Vietnam___..dia_035.jpg

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 03:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged blogsherpa Comments (0)

Slow time on the South China Sea coast

Hoi An, Danang and Quy Nhon, South Central Vietnam

sunny 30 °C
View China & SE Asia on SEAsia.Mon's travel map.

After three nights in Hue, we caught the train to Danang, a scenic two-hour journey over the Hai Van Pass. On arrival at Danang Train Station we immediately took a local bus, for just 10,000 dong, to Hoi An which is close to Danang but not on the rail network. I must say we felt very smug knowing that most travellers don't seem to be aware of this bus and pay an exorbitant US$10, sometimes more, to taxis and hotel transfers to reach Hoi An, less than 30km away!

Hoi An was a strategic port for Vietnam in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was known as Faifo. It is now much more focused on the tourist trade, but has definitely retained its historic feel especially in the relaxed old town: its charming old buildings, paint peeling; narrow streets and picturesque riverside, lined with shops restaurants and galleries; pretty painted fishing boats moored in the river with boatswomen calling out to passersby to take a boat ride on their sampans.

Hoi An

Hoi An


large_Picture_004.jpg
Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallow's Nests!

Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallow's Nests!


Kites, Hoi An

Kites, Hoi An

Old Town, Hoi An

Old Town, Hoi An

The town has many old wooden merchant houses full of character with their large rooms and open areas and lovely teak wooden stairs showing extensive areas on both the ground and upper levels. They are now mainly galleries or museums. Unfortunately these amazing hardwood bannisters and stairways are not easily captured with a tiny camera so this is the only image that gives a hint of these old houses.

large_4Picture_019.jpg

Hoi An is, of course, renowned for its tailors and indeed every second store displays its own take on the latest fashion - some better than others, many same same... After hearing horror stories about difficulties encountered with getting clothes made up I decided not to risk it as in the end we were only going to be in Hoi An for two nights (again due to the high season), which would not be enough time to select and consult with a tailor anyway.

Catching the local bus back to Danang, a city more popular with business travellers than tourists, we spent a night there and took in the famed Museum of Cham Sculpture, home of the largest collection of Cham art in the world and housed in a museum founded by the École Française d'Extrême Orient in 1915. Gathered from many different Cham sites around the country, each room represents an area of discovery and contains linga, statues of Vishnu, Siva and Brahma, as well as the sacred symbols embodied in the form of elephant gods, lions, dragons, sacred bulls, monkey kings and garudas; the Indian influence is apparent.

Cham sculpture, Museum of Cham Sculpture, Danang

Cham sculpture, Museum of Cham Sculpture, Danang

As a child, I would watch the story of the Ramayana which was shown on television on Sunday mornings in Durban, where I lived for a few years, and was fascinated by the culture and mysticism, and this visit brought back memories of the stories I watched and loved.

In my opinion, the main reason to visit Danang is to see the world famous Museum of Cham Sculpture. However, they say that you can find good food here and we did go to a popular restaurant down the road from our hotel where we enjoyed squid, prawns sauteed in butter and garlic, and beef in chilli but we were only there for a day so didn't really experience much more of what Danang has to offer.

Food on the soft seater carriages

Food on the soft seater carriages



Needing a break from the constant hotel-swapping and the touristy areas, and perhaps also craving a beach holiday, we took the train soft-seat to Quy Nhon, a smallish town a six hour train journey south of Danang; capital of Binh Dinh Province, and once an important site of the Cham civilisation.

The soft seat carriages are quite comfortable. Padded seats often with a blanket provided to protect you from the unremittant air conditioning are allocated, and there is good space for luggage above. Food is ferried past on trolleys at regular intervals, as well as drinks and snacks. Vietnamese comedy, live performances and the odd movie are broadcast intermittently at a very high volume on two tv screens in the centre of the carriage, each pointing in the opposite direction so that all can see and hear. So best to bring earplugs along in case.

We had decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the gorgeous Hoang Anh Resort in Quy Nhon, set right on the beach with a stunning, clear blue pool and spacious rooms with a large balcony complete with table and chairs so that you can look at the sea view. It was lovely to listen to the roar of the waves at night lying in bed, if we didn't have the air-conditioning on, that is! There were not many people there so it was wonderfully secluded and we felt very pampered by the hotel staff: poolside service with lunch sitting in the shade under the coconut palms, sipping our... fresh coconut juice! Or lying on the loungers soaking up the sun, or lolling in the pool looking over at the South China Sea, the pool water a perfect temperature. Ah heaven, so balmy!

We ate in the hotel dining room, often the only guests there, and the prices were very reasonable, generally about 100,000 dong for a main meal. We liked the seabass with aubergine and a delicate sauce, and the chilli green aubergine stewed in oil and sprinkled with dried shrimp, and of course the noodle dishes. We had fun catching the local bus a couple of times into Quy Nhon centre and we did go and have the most delicious fish and chips at "Bar Bar Ra's", the backpacker stalwart in Quy Nhon. Anyway, we just generally caught up on ourselves, it was well deserved.

Sea view, Quy Nhon

Sea view, Quy Nhon


Quy Nhon

Quy Nhon

Perfect location for a spot of writing

Perfect location for a spot of writing

Hotel pool, Quy Nhon

Hotel pool, Quy Nhon


Posters, Quy Nhon

Posters, Quy Nhon



Quy Nhon is at the centre of a range of Cham sites, which is the main thing that attracted us here after our appetites were whetted by the Danang Museum. Unfortunately the Cham sights are quite scattered from one another and to see them all one would again need to be able to ride a motorbike and negotiate the hectic roads, or alternatively you can pay a tour company US$50 to be driven in a bus. We decided upon the lazy (and cheap) way out and took a local bus. No one seemed to know anything about or be able to give us any information on the bus system there which is a pity for the budget traveller as it certainly is an option. After simply climbing on one bus and pointing to a place on the map, we were taken to the Thap Doi Cham Towers in the centre of Quy Nhon. There are two of them and they stand beautifully out of place in the bustling city, set in a grassy green park, still retaining some of their carvings and statues. They were a good introduction to Cham architecture for us, although I am sad that we did not make it up to My Son to see much more of these wonderful towers.

Thap Doi Cham Towers, Quy Nhon

Thap Doi Cham Towers, Quy Nhon

Thap Doi Cham Towers

Thap Doi Cham Towers

Thap Doi Cham Towers

Thap Doi Cham Towers

Regrettably it was eventually time to move on, away from this idyllic haven. We bought tickets to Saigon on the Golden Train, the local slower train that leaves from Quy Nhon's little out of the way station, as opposed to the more commonly used Reunification Express which departs from Dieu Tri, about 10kms and a 100,000 dong taxi ride away from Quy Nhon. It was an overnight sleeper again and actually the same standard as all over Vietnam.

large_Picture_029.jpg
Soft Sleeper, Golden Train

Soft Sleeper, Golden Train

Quy Nhon train station!

Quy Nhon train station!

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 21:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged blogsherpa Comments (0)

Hue to now?

Historic and cultural capital of Vietnam, Central Provinces

sunny

A scene of tropical lushness greeted us as we woke after a long overnight journey on the Reunification Express, this time from Hanoi to Hue (pronounced h-weh): rural Vietnamese life in all its green richness, waterlogged rice paddies, conical-hatted women working the fields, water buffalo ploughing the earth, flocks of ducks being herded as they swam amongst the paddies, a fisherman catching even the fish which swim in these rice paddies, an ancient way of life that still continues, mainly without mechanisation, seeds planted by hand and fields ploughed by man and beast. Vietnam is a very wet country, small lakes and pools of water dominate the landscape alongside green fields and palm trees. Amidst the fields the humble rural dwellings, the little country pagodas and temples, the rural lanes, even the cemeteries attest to the wonderful way the Vietnamese country people live in harmony with their surroundings.

large_Picture_097.jpg
Taken from moving Reunification Express north of Hue

Taken from moving Reunification Express north of Hue


Rice paddy from moving train

Rice paddy from moving train


Agricultural scene, north of Hue

Agricultural scene, north of Hue


Country lane, taken from moving train, north of Hue

Country lane, taken from moving train, north of Hue


large_DSCF1414.jpg
Pretty rural scene, again caught from train window, north of Hue

Pretty rural scene, again caught from train window, north of Hue

Having reflected at length on train travel in China, at this juncture I feel I need to dedicate at least a paragraph to our experience of Vietnamese trains: we have so far mainly been in the supposedly more luxurious soft sleepers, other than a couple of shorter journeys which only required soft seats. The soft sleepers seem to be more available and less expensive here than in China. Having said that, although air-conditioned and with 4 beds instead of 6, they have generally been of a worse standard too, much older and more rundown than the Chinese trains, with old furnishings and finishes. But despite this downside, the upside to taking trains here has been that there is little if any music and loud announcements made during the journey leaving you to enjoy the scenery and your sleep. Also, the beauty of soft sleepers as opposed to hard sleepers is, of course, that you have an enclosed compartment and the ability to lock your door. For double the price, an exorbitant amount, you can go on special carriages such as those owned by ET Pumpkin and Livitrans which are attached to the standard train and are meant to be more luxurious and are mainly for use by foreigners.

Soft Sleeper, Golden Train

Soft Sleeper, Golden Train

Back to this train journey however. I was eager to get to Hue as it is a city well-known for its history and architecture. It was the final seat of the last emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyens who ruled from 1802 to 1945, and who left behind a gloriously rich heritage of beautiful buildings and monuments, all set on the banks of the wonderfully-named Perfume River.

large_DSCF1450.jpg
From Trang Tien Bridge, central Hue

From Trang Tien Bridge, central Hue

Hue is a large city, spread out over both banks of the Perfume River: the southern bank, where the hotels and restaurants are located; and the older more characterful Citadel side on the north: we got lost on this side, trying to make our way to the Imperial Enclosure our first, very humid, hot day and ended up wandering through a shanty town running along the back streets. Here the residents sought shelter from the midday sun in their small homes, often making up a bed on the cool floor. No matter how basic these houses were each was equipped with a television which took pride of place in their living areas, broadcasting a favourite midday show! Rats foraged for scraps among the piles of rubbish in the street outside unmolested by the people around them; the ever-present birdcage hanging from the eaves, inside them multi-coloured wild birds, the favourite being the Red Whiskered Bulbul with its red cheek and red belly, some Mynahs, the tiny yellow Oriental White Eye and many more exotic breeds. One resident was gently spraying water at his delighted bulbul, an attempt to relieve it from the muggy heat of the day. This is one of the better relationships between man and caged bird that I've seen here; unfortunately, most are kept as mere decoration for a restaurant or shop, the birds left lonely, sometimes without water, often with no stimulation, a necessity for these intelligent creatures.

Young man gently spraying his bulbul, the only birdbath she can get!

Young man gently spraying his bulbul, the only birdbath she can get!

Back streets of Hue

Back streets of Hue

Back streets of Hue

Back streets of Hue



We only found the Imperial Enclosure, Hue's most famous monument, the next day! Within the old walled citadel, the enclosure where the Nguyen emperors lived, is a square fortified city within a city, so to speak, surrounded by a moat.

Entered by the impressive Ngo Mon Gate, with its covered area, Ngu Phung, the grandeur that must have marked the early days of the Nguyen Emperors' reign is overwhelming. This is where the emperor would appear on special occasions and where the end of imperial rule came about with Emperor Bao Dai's abdication in 1945. Built mainly in a traditional style, at its height the Imperial Enclosure was a huge complex of 520 hectares with beautiful temples, a large theatre, residences, lotus ponds, lakes and covered walkways.

Ngu Phung (area where the emperor would appear on special occasions), Ngo Mon Gate, Imperial Enclosure

Ngu Phung (area where the emperor would appear on special occasions), Ngo Mon Gate, Imperial Enclosure


Guarding the Imperial Enclosure

Guarding the Imperial Enclosure

At the centre of the enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City where the emperors lived and only eunuchs, who posed no threat to the imperial concubines, were allowed to enter. Sadly, most of the Forbidden City and other parts of the Imperial Enclosure were quite badly damaged in both the French and American wars and so mainly consist of ruins, old overgrown gardens, lakes and lily ponds, but it was nonetheless a grand complex in its day. In the Halls of the Mandarins where court officials prepared for court business, there is now an exhibition of photos of the Enclosure in its working days: some of these photos show the presence of the French, often in the background in their splendid white uniforms, clearly wielding their influence as emperor after emperor who showed any hint of nationalist sentiment was replaced (sometimes after mysterious deaths!); also visible is the court life with processions of kowtowing mandarins and a coterie of servants carrying the emperors in royal boxes.

Dragon bannister, Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure

Dragon bannister, Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure


Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure

Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure


Rockery outside the Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure

Rockery outside the Emperor's Reading Room, Imperial Enclosure


Topiary - very prevalent in Vietnam, Imperial Enclosure

Topiary - very prevalent in Vietnam, Imperial Enclosure

Gardens of Dien Tho Residence, Imperial Enclosure

Gardens of Dien Tho Residence, Imperial Enclosure

Dien Tho Residence, Imperial Enclosure

Dien Tho Residence, Imperial Enclosure


Detail, Imperial Enclosure

Detail, Imperial Enclosure


With its history, Hue is a great place to visit but to see all that it has to offer it's a good idea to either hire a motorbike, bicycle or perhaps a local boat as some of the sights are fairly spread out. We decided to take up an offer we saw at a local cafe for a day's outing on a dragon boat: for a mere US$5, one could visit a range of sights along the river: a Sampan village first, the ubiquitous traditional boats moored on the river's north shore, each serving as its owner's dwelling - bedroom, living room, dining room and office all in one; an old temple along the river banks; the iconic Thien Mu Pagoda 4km southwest of the city with its 7 tiers each dedicated to a manushi-buddha, with child monks in their purple robes wandering contemplatively around its peaceful gardens; and most important of all for us, the famous tombs of the Nguyen emperors, Minh Mang, Khai Dinh and Tu Duc.

large_DSCF1557.jpg
At Thien Mu Pagoda

At Thien Mu Pagoda



Minh Mang was the son of the first Nguyen Emperor, Gia Long, and ruled from 1820 to 1840. He was known for his anti-Catholic and pro-Confucian attitudes and, by extension, for his opposition to western influences, namely the French. Although his reign was short, he produced 142 children!

It took fourteen years to find the location for his tomb and only three years to build. The whole complex, set in a lush green wooded park with large serene lakes crossed over by ornamental bridges, fits beautifully into its natural surroundings; like many tombs, Minh Mang's resting place was chosen by geomancers to have perfect feng shui. As is customary with these mausoleums, it includes a stele pavilion to list the achievements and virtues of the deceased emperor; a temple for the worship of the emperor and his wife; a sepulchre where the remains of the emperor lie (or are meant to lie, sometimes they are buried elsewhere to throw grave robbers off the scent!); an honour courtyard where statues of elephants, horses and mandarins stand to honour the emperor; and a lotus pond.

Mandarin, Tomb of Minh Mang

Mandarin, Tomb of Minh Mang

Honour Courtyard, Tomb of Minh Mang

Honour Courtyard, Tomb of Minh Mang

Gate, Tomb of Minh Mang

Gate, Tomb of Minh Mang


Stele, Tomb of Minh Mang

Stele, Tomb of Minh Mang


large_DSCF1587.jpg
Tomb of Minh Mang

Tomb of Minh Mang



A short drive from Minh Mang's resting place is the very different tomb of Khai Dinh, an emperor far more influenced by the west, a fact that becomes evident upon seeing his mausoleum. Looking up from the bottom of the grandiose dragon-bannistered stone staircases at its entrance, the tomb appears dark and almost gothic, a mixture of eastern and western architecture. Lacking the beautiful gardens of Minh Mang's tomb, it is nevertheless impressive with its ceramic mosaics and glass finishes, as well as its honour courtyard with two tiers of mandarins. Although Khai Dinh ruled for only nine years, 1916-1925, his tomb took eleven years to build!

large_DSCF1594.jpg
Tomb of Khai Dinh

Tomb of Khai Dinh



Last on our tour was the tomb of Tu Duc, once again in stark contrast to the green lushness of Minh Mang's tomb, but nevertheless striking. More of a wintry landscape to Minh Mang's spring, it is also set on large grounds with beautiful gardens that shone gold in the fading sunlight. A pavilion set on stilts on one of the lakes overlooks a little island on which Tu Duc would hunt for small game; he used the complex as a sometime residence before his death, a place to meditate and write poetry, with residences built for some of his concubines to accompany him. The grandeur of the tomb reflects the luxurious life that Tu Duc was said to lead, he had numerous concubines and 104 wives but no children, apparently due to smallpox contracted early in his life. It is to Tu Duc's notoriously fussy pallet that Hue owes its reputation for fine cuisine, but more on that later. Noteworthy at the tomb of Tu Duc is the fact that in contrast to other emperors, the emperor summarised his own reign on his stele, including reference to difficulties encountered and mistakes made. Also, his honour courtyard is unusual in that alongside the horses and elephants standing guard to honour the emperor are diminutive mandarins, made so especially because of the smaller stature of the emperor who was 153 cm tall.

large_DSCF1596.jpg
Pavilion on the lake, Tomb of Tu Duc

Pavilion on the lake, Tomb of Tu Duc


Diminutive Mandarin (to allow for the shortness of the emperor), Tomb of Tu Duc

Diminutive Mandarin (to allow for the shortness of the emperor), Tomb of Tu Duc


Tomb of Tu Duc

Tomb of Tu Duc

Tomb of Tu Duc

Tomb of Tu Duc



All in all, our little boat trip was US$5 well spent, an excellent day, seeing a range of sites as well as taking in the Perfume River, so atmospheric aboard our dragon boat conquering the waters of this immense river! Lunch on the boat was included, and transfers to the sites that were further away from the water.

River beyond

River beyond

Palm trees

Palm trees


large_DSCF1554.jpg
River view from the boat, Hue

River view from the boat, Hue

Preparing lunch on the dragon boat, Hue

Preparing lunch on the dragon boat, Hue


large_DSCF1564.jpg

Other than for its history and architecture Hue is also well-known for its food: Imperial-style meals, banquets of various dishes, each beautifully garnished and presented with amazing attention to detail, a type of eating created to satisfy the fussiness of Emperor Tu Duc. One restaurant is said to serve 7 courses of artistically-presented gourmet dishes, food carved into unusual shapes continuing this Imperial tradition. We were keen to try out this way of eating with Hue being known as foodie heaven but, as with most visitors to Hue, we stayed on the south side of the river and the restaurant was on the north side and was a bit of a trek to get to at night. Also with December approaching and the high season drawing closer, we had a struggle with our first hotel being full after the first night and had to search for a hotel and settle into a new place. And with spending a day on the boat sightseeing, we often arrived back at our hotel at night and just wanted to go somewhere convenient. I'm sorry to have missed out on this particular experience but having spoken to fellow travellers, most did the same. Having said that, I do feel we missed out as although Hue is known as a place to eat well, we struggled to find anywhere extraordinary to eat!

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 06:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged blogsherpa Comments (0)

Good Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi, Halong Bay and a little bit of Sa Pa too

semi-overcast
View China & SE Asia on SEAsia.Mon's travel map.

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower), Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower), Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi


Street vendors, Hanoi

Street vendors, Hanoi

Although we disembarked the overnight train from Lao Cai at 5am in the morning, we immediately had to peel off our jerseys as the humid warmth of Hanoi greeted us! We hoped to have finally escaped the cold that had been following us from Lijiang all the way through southern China and into north Vietnam.

Armed with a sheet of instructions written in Vietnamese (emailed to us by our Hanoi hotel) indicating the exact address of our accommodation and the price we were willing to pay to be taken there, we braved the taxi drivers waiting outside the train station. We had been warned by our guide book and the hotel that taxi drivers were notorious in this city for telling tourists that their preferred hotel was full or that it had moved (often there are more than three hotels with the same name, each trying to poach one another's clientele) and then taking them to another hotel so that they could get their commission. This can result in an unpleasant exchange with the hotelier, even becoming physical!

Our experience during our short time in Vietnam had taught us to be careful: in Sa Pa, we were quoted a certain price for our room the evening of our arrival, and then when it came time to pay the next morning, another 130000 dong was added to the bill. Luckily we had insisted on taking our passports back the night before, and so they had no leverage. We prevailed, and paid the original price! Another traveller in Sa Pa was chased down the road by a man on a scooter, wielding a knife. This guy had offered him a laundry service, and then returned his washing still dirty and so he had refused to pay. Needless to say, he felt forced to pay the guy! (Having said this, these were our early experiences of Vietnam and I am happy to say that things have only improved since then).

Anyway, because of all our precautions, we arrived safe at our hotel in the Old Quarter, US$35 double. It came well recommended and we were pleased with it.

After a quick hour's nap to recover from the train journey, we breakfasted at one of the many cafes in the streets around our hotel. As soon as we ventured out of the hotel, we encountered the infamous Hanoi traffic: throngs of motorbikes, scooters and cars coming at you from all angles as you try to get across the road. Advice from other travellers and the guide books is to walk very slowly, never to run, to give them the chance to go around you and generally it works.

That Hanoi traffic!

That Hanoi traffic!


Cyclos, Hanoi

Cyclos, Hanoi

We set off to explore our local area. Going for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake at the centre of old Hanoi, we stumbled upon the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre and decided to buy tickets for a show that night which turned out to be a series of short tableaus based on old Vietnamese fables and customs, particularly agricultural (water puppetry originated in the rice terraces), all performed by wooden painted puppets on a pool of water, set to the prettiest traditional live music. Very clever and funny, and of course charming: it's lovely to see the delight on the faces of the children.

Setting the scene, Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi

Setting the scene, Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi


Legend of the Restored Sword, Water Puppets Theatre, Hanoi

Legend of the Restored Sword, Water Puppets Theatre, Hanoi


Fairy dance, Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi

Fairy dance, Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi


Water puppets, Hanoi

Water puppets, Hanoi

Back to our first outing in Hanoi, we came upon the smallest of temples after following some people into a tiny unassuming entrance from where we could hear music playing. At the top of the stairs, we saw an ornate altar, complete with gold adornments, a large colourful paper horse, as well as money and fruit offerings. Peering behind the altar, we found a group of musicians seated on the floor, playing and singing.

102 Pho Hang Bac, Hanoi Behind a tiny door we found this!

102 Pho Hang Bac, Hanoi Behind a tiny door we found this!

Another place of interest is Memorial House, an old Chinese merchant's house, now a small museum, still with original fittings preserved and restored. The front room obviously was the merchant's showroom, furnished with a gracious hardwood table only inches from the ground, surrounded by matching little stools: obviously for the merchant to entertain his clientele with tea, I'm sure duly dispensed by the maidservant! The rest of this floor and the upper floor were restored to how a well-off merchant would have lived with his wife and family last century: an antique hardwood bed, complete with bamboo pillow in the bedroom; the living room doubled as a room for worship of the family's ancestors, the kitchen was beautifully restored, there was an old squat toilet in the bathing area at the back.

Tea table, front room, Memorial House

Tea table, front room, Memorial House


Front commercial room, Memorial House

Front commercial room, Memorial House


Bowls made from various materials such as porcelain and precious stone, Memorial House

Bowls made from various materials such as porcelain and precious stone, Memorial House


Old bed in Memorial House (no mattress was used on top of this! Please note the bamboo pillow)

Old bed in Memorial House (no mattress was used on top of this! Please note the bamboo pillow)

We also took in the Temple of Literature set in a large tranquil, well-treed garden. Founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the first university in Vietnam was then later established here in 1076 to educate noblemen. They sat examinations in their respective districts, and those who excelled were able to take their doctor laureate examinations at the university. The small number of candidates who passed these were recorded on stelae, large commemorative stones set on the backs of stone tortoises, which were put up at the university. 82 of the original 116 still stand here.

Khue Van Pavilion, Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Khue Van Pavilion, Temple of Literature, Hanoi


Stelae, Temple of Literature

Stelae, Temple of Literature

Confucian statues, Temple of Literature

Confucian statues, Temple of Literature

Across the road from the Temple is the Fine Arts Museum of Hanoi in the former French Ministry of Information. This is well worth visiting. (We have particularly noticed in the Old Quarter how artistic the Vietnamese are as the artisans chisel gravestones by hand and war propaganda posters are on display in many of the shops.)

Old propaganda poster, Hanoi

Old propaganda poster, Hanoi

Old propaganda poster, Hanoi

Old propaganda poster, Hanoi

The museum exhibits a wide range of Vietnamese art from applied arts in the costumes, embroidery, tools and furniture of the minority people to temple artworks and sculptures and includes beautiful and distinctive paintings on silk and lacquered wood. It was astonishing and quite moving to see how much their art had been affected by their struggles in the American War.

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Village scene, Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Village scene, Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Sculpture, Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Sculpture, Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

After pho for lunch at Pho24, and a delicious cake from KOTO next door, we caught a bus back into the Old Quarter and continued exploring. We headed for the traditional street market on Pho Thanh Ha. Walking from stall to stall, we saw fat fish still glistening, plentiful produce, and headless large frogs being skinned as they squirmed.

Opera House, Hanoi

Opera House, Hanoi

Next to the Opera House, the history museum is housed in one of Hanoi's most stunning architectural buildings. Designed by the French architect, Ernest Hebrard, it combines Chinese and French elements, to striking effect. The museum charts the history of the Vietnamese from cavemen to their struggle for independence from the French colonialists.

History Museum, Hanoi

History Museum, Hanoi

Inside the Hanoi History Museum

Inside the Hanoi History Museum


Bronze drum, History Museum, Hanoi

Bronze drum, History Museum, Hanoi

Young Buddha emerging from a lotus, History Museum, Hanoi

Young Buddha emerging from a lotus, History Museum, Hanoi

Phoenix Head, History Museum, Hanoi

Phoenix Head, History Museum, Hanoi

It is said that if you go to northern Vietnam and Hanoi, two places you should visit are: Sa Pa, a mountainous region in the north west, particularly known for their rice terraces and for their unspoilt minority cultures. Although we did spend a few days in Sa Pa, we didn't really sightsee because we had just spent some time at the Yuanyang rice terraces in Yunnan, southern China which is a similar, if less touristy, experience.

Market, Sa Pa

Market, Sa Pa

Mountain view, Sa Pa

Mountain view, Sa Pa

The other tour is to stay over on a junk boat in Halong Bay in north east Vietnam. Halong Bay is renowned for its karst limestone formations, similar to those found in Guilin and Yangshuo in southern China and Krabi in Thailand. This was something we were assured you mustn't miss.

We did a bit of research on the best companies for this trip, not being tourgroup-type people, and found that Handspan had the most positive feedback - no rats in cabins, decent guides, good safety precautions etc. It is expensive though, US$197 per person for two nights! After a three and a half hour transfer on a bus there, we spent the first night in a lovely cabin on our "junk", but we had to check out of our cabin at 8am the next morning, I presume because the boat was to be immediately used by the next group. In all, we only spent 17 hours on this boat, although the brochure photos of it had been the selling point for this very expensive tour. (Also, although we were served good seafood, the portions were very small). We were then transported to a support boat, far more basic, definitely no frills. We spent the only full day of the Handspan tour on this support vehicle, from which we went out kayaking, which was really fun and I can`t wait to do it again. Late afternoon, we arrived at Cat Ba Island where we were transported to the Cat Ba Sunrise Resort for the second night of our tour. It was a lovely hotel with spacious room - a highlight of this experience.

Just arrived on our junk in the harbour, Halong Bay

Just arrived on our junk in the harbour, Halong Bay


Our cabin on our junk, Halong Bay

Our cabin on our junk, Halong Bay


Newly painted house! Floating fishing village, Halong Bay

Newly painted house! Floating fishing village, Halong Bay


Sampans from a floating fishing village, Halong Bay

Sampans from a floating fishing village, Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Sun shining on the karst hills, Halong Bay

Sun shining on the karst hills, Halong Bay


A breezy morning on the top of the junk

A breezy morning on the top of the junk


Kayaking, Halong Bay

Kayaking, Halong Bay

Vietnamese women casting the nets for fish, Halong Bay

Vietnamese women casting the nets for fish, Halong Bay


Me kayaking

Me kayaking

Fishing boats, Cat Ba Island

Fishing boats, Cat Ba Island


The view from our room at Cat Ba Sunrise Resort, Cat Ba Island

The view from our room at Cat Ba Sunrise Resort, Cat Ba Island


Our hotel, the Cat Ba Sunrise Resort - heavenly setting!

Our hotel, the Cat Ba Sunrise Resort - heavenly setting!

We returned to Hanoi for a couple of nights after Halong Bay - it was like returning home! I must say now that we've moved on from Hanoi that I echo what a fellow blogger says: "Oh Bun Cha, how I yearn for you...", I still miss the Hanoi Bun Cha, the food was excellent in general! I miss the character of the city, the lovely French colonial buildings, it retains its historic charm, I miss the Old Quarter, it's a lively city that at the same time feels small and manageable, it's a city with lakes, which I've never seen before. Go there, go to Hanoi!

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 20:23 Archived in Vietnam Tagged blogsherpa Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 11) Page [1] 2 3 »