Saigon – Ho Chi Minh
Landing in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam the original impression was great…there is a quiet zone inside the airport where you can get money, arrange airport transfers and local phone cards entirely in peace. Once these simple logistics are sorted you then step out into the throng of spruiks, touts and general madness that exists with every Asian commute.
We headed to our hostel to find our room was not ready so we bounced around the streets in a range of local bars killing time and a wide variety of beers waiting for our room. Beer here in Vietnam tends to range in price anywhere from 10,000 dong all the way up to a ridiculous 50,000 dong (50 cents up to $2.50). We had the obligatory wet season afternoon downpours and generally enjoyed the sights and sounds of a new city.
Room ready, we dumped our gear and ventured out for an evening meal. Jill had booked our hostel in the middle of the tourist bar and nightclub district. This brought about a new game for Jill. She would walk about 10 metres behind me and laugh as the local hookers and bar girls would see me and commence their patter and then she would appear and they would all go oh…and stop. She thought that this was a fun game.
On the food front I had been dreading the next couple of legs and the Ho Chi Minh foray saw a lot of my fears come to light…Jill on the other hand was fine. I have a long held dislike for cucumber and I find that coriander overpowers everything in a dish. As such these are my two most disliked items (brussel sprouts are high on any list too) and Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand tend to use them all liberally. Jill loves them so she is having a ball while I am hunting for and eating around some of the staple foods of the land. The fresh spring rolls and bowls of Pho have Jill in bliss and I have had 2 spring rolls each one was laden with one or both of the offending items so I stopped trying them. Thankfully the Pho comes with a plate of fresh herbs and you can add your own…so I have the opportunity to eat this at least.
The next day we headed out on the tourist trail starting with a walk to the Ben Thanh market which is in the heart of town and sells almost everything on the planet…cheap…if you are willing to fight and haggle. From here a walk to the opera house, around to the people’s convention hall, past the revolutionary museum and on to the Notre Dame cathedral.
At this, point we had reached the war remnants museum (which was formerly called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” and before that the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”). This is possibly the most confronting war museum in the world. There were images and stories so graphic as to turn people’s stomachs and visibly queasy people could be seen. Photos of dismemberments due to shelling and more of the napalm and agent orange victims abound.
Possibly more confronting were the photos of the disfigurement and retardation caused by the Agent Orange bombings, a generation on… No doubt there were elements of propaganda throughout but either way, this was one of the grittiest war museums I have been to…highlighting the bad sides of war rather than the heroism that is normally displayed.
As a positive, the ground floor had stories and photos of people overcoming and living with their disabilities and deformities.
The one thing that Vietnam has that is new for us since leaving Australia is a rumble…the sheer volume of motorbikes on the roads means that the entire place rumbles. No one bike is overly noisy but the constant stream of thousands of bikes means that there is a constant vibration. Having left China where all the bikes were electric and silent this was quite the change for us.
Saigon 2023 update
Well, what a difference a few years has made. Vietnam has gone ahead in leaps and bounds since our last visit. So much has changed, and for the most part, they seem to have gone ahead, rather than backwards during the Covid crisis. The economy seems to be booming and there is not the large volumes of empty or derelict shops that we have encountered everywhere else so far. Sadly this has impacted our exchange rate, on our last trip we were getting around 20,000 dong per Aussie dollar. Whether our currency has tanked, or the Vietnamese economy has strengthened this is down closer to 15000 today.
The introduction back into Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh was poor, as the immigration process was long, painful and cumbersome. We got off our plane and spent the next 90 minutes inching forward in a seemingly unmoving line. Eventually we did make it out of the airport and made our way to the accommodation.
Interestingly, the name Ho Chi Minh City seems to have reverted back to Saigon in virtually all local parlance. The first thing that strikes you is how clean it is. Major efforts have been, and continue to be, made in cleaning up the city. The roads are good, wide and there are lanes that, for the most part, are used. Footpaths now exist and are in good order (even if they still have motorbike parking all over them).
The central Bến Thành Market has had an external refresh with a large paved area out the front now, giving easy access. The market itself does however seem to have transformed fully into a tourist market (rather than the 70% that it was before).
Also, the rumbling of motorcycles has calmed. The introduction of electric bikes has reduced some of the rumble that used to exist from the masses of motorbikes. Don’t get me wrong, the rumble is still there but it is considerably reduced from that which formerly existed. Even some of the honking of horns has reduced.
The traditional dress for women that used to be widely worn, has all but disappeared (in Saigon at least). This has been replaced with the shortest of short pants and skirts that seem to be everywhere. The pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme.
The abundance of ladyboys seems to have gone through the roof. While they were always there, this time around, they seem to be more prevalent. The other thing that has exploded is the use of padded underwear to give a womanly shape. This applies to the ladyboys and the women alike. We sat at a bar and watched the parade as people with very interesting shapes passed us by. I decided that these would forevermore be known as Bumderwear.
The one thing that has not changed is the variety, quality and cheapness of the food. Even with such a drop off in exchange rates, food and beverage in Vietnam remains very cheap with incredible value to be found for under $5.
Our first lunch was a Banh Mi from a street vendor who was charging a ridiculous 22,000 dong ($1.30) for a pork roll with the lot. So for under $5 Jill and I were fed and got a drink each.
The bus from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho was something that we had dreaded…to get there we had to get a taxi to the bus ticket office, get our tickets, get a small bus to the big bus terminus, find our bus and get on for the 3-4 hr ride to Can Tho. We imagined the worst with chickens in cages, pigs oinking and flying feathers. Surprisingly it all went very smoothly.
The guy from the hostel followed the cab and sorted our tickets, a whining child on the small bus was the worst part. We got to the big bus and were met by a bus dude who checked our ticket and escorted us to a very nice bus indeed. Only one child (of a good age), Wifi throughout the journey…perfect…until…about 15 minutes in he turned on the entertainment. A local comedy movie…starring a tantrum throwing, fishwife, drama queen mother, and 5 semi adopted kids, all delivered with the nasal twang that accompanies most Asian languages…I swear a fishwife sounds the same despite the language…in reality this was just a constant discordant cacophony of noise that just kept going…and a speaker above everyone’s head.
Anyway the movie eventually finished and we arrived in Can Tho which is the main town in the heart of the Mekong delta towards the southern tip of Vietnam. The main reason was to come and poke around the Mekong delta, cruising the canals and just look about. We did this on our second day with a 5am start and a cab to the dodgy little boat that would be our transport for the day. We sat in this boat and putted up the river watching the sun rise over the Mekong delta. Pretty special.
We floated around checking out two different types of floating markets (Cái Răng and Phong Điền Floating Markets) and generally being afraid that the water may touch us. It started with comments such as “remind me not to eat the seafood here”. The Mekong is the lifeblood of this area…but on initial glance it is filthy and terrifying. Surprisingly after a day on the canals you are no longer afraid and see the murky brown colour as quite normal…and dinner was seafood. While we putted along…our boat lady was busy behind us doing pineapple leaf origami. At one point she presented the girls with her creations.
We had a walk along the banks of the canals, checked out the rice noodle making factory and headed back to the hotel for a nap as 5am starts are less than thrilling these days. The Mekong really does offer the world to the people of the region. It is the transport superhighway, the market, the bathtub, the laundry, the water source and the sewer…all at the same time. The next major thing was for Jill to finalise an assignment.
The highlight of Can Tho for me was the walking food tour…the hotel offered a walking tour with a uni student who showed us to all the local haunts to eat at the little side street restaurants and get a handle on Vietnamese street foods. So off we went…we hit stall after store after cart and ate a variety of delicacies, some specific to Can Tho only. The menu for the night was:
Re tranh – a corn tasting juice thing
Nen nuong – BBQ pork fresh spring rolls that you compile yourself
Banh cong- a savoury muffin
Tau xu txo – pork, ginger and tofu in a clay pot
Ecx – BBQ bullfrog
Ca txo – pork and eggplant in a clay pot
It was finished off with sweet sticky rice but I forgot to ask the local name for this. The tour was free with you paying only for what you ate and a recommended $5 tip to the guide. A great meal as you walked around the city and an awesome way to demystify some fairly daunting looking culinary experiences. And an entire tour that avoided the two dreaded ingredients.
Well we had a really easy commute to Phu Quoc island on a Vietnam airlines turbo prop. It was a wet and rainy day so the landing was a little on the rough side as we hit some serious turbulence on the way in. The female pilot had it all under control…I made the obligatory cockpit/box office joke…Jill was unimpressed…but we did hit a vew potholes on the way in that caused some people to almost soil themselves. It was pretty funny really.
We arrived at Phu Quoc island (which is essentially a series of beach resorts) at the end of rainy season. So of course it rained that evening and was torrential all of the next day…we sat and caught up with our blogging, reviews of various places and had a short walk for a meal when the rain briefly eased. We found a co-op store that sold cheese so bought some Edam and Gouda with some crackers, tomato and a local version of a cabana. A bottle of sav blanc and some beers and the afternoon just flew by.
Our neighbours in the next bungalow decided to cut short their plans and moved on…big mistake…the next morning (and the next two to follow) we woke to stunning sunshine, calm warm waters and an idyllic island lifestyle. We hired motorbikes for the grand price of $7.50 a day and off we went exploring. Zipping along dirt tracks alongside a beach for hour upon hour is pretty sweet. We climbed up what passes for a mountain (on the bikes) and headed to the southernmost tip of the island to the pier where all the fishing boats come in, dock and sell their wares.
After a good day we dropped off our bikes after getting more cheese etc for a late afternoon nibble and that night headed up to the closest thing that resembles a decent restaurant. This place is a culinary vacuum…the whole island. There are many restaurants but they all serve some form of fusion food. Given the wide variety of tourists nationalities that come here…this fusion is vast…and wrong. This is a theme that we have discovered throughout our travels…in every country…western food is tailored to suit local tastes and vice versa…and it does not work…ever. We have stopped trying to eat western food as it just gets destroyed. Eat local, it is cheaper, and better.
Phu Quoc island is currently pretty idyllic but the signs are bad…the place as it is, is full of beachside bungalows and little resort style accommodation… but the big hotels are coming. While doing the motorbike ride we passed the building sites of about 10 big 5 star hotels…side by side. This will greatly change the nature of the place so get in quickly before it changes forever.
We settled in to a few days of lazing by the beach, swimming in the surf, having late afternoon cocktails while watching the sun set and having evening meals at one of the crapy fusion joints. We found a decent coffee place which was about a one kilometre walk up the beach…so we made a daily trek…interspersed with dips in the ocean. We seem to have finished the hard travelling section of our trip and the places we are visiting have comparatively little to see…just things to experience.
Having left Phu Quoc we landed in Hanoi and our Vietnam experiences changed almost immediately. Up until now Vietnam has had much going for it….the place is cheap, the people are friendly and a hello will greet you everywhere you go, the architectural mix is fascinating and there is an overwhelming sense that people want to help and serve (in a tourism sense)…but it still wasn’t doing it for us.
Maybe it was the food but Vietnam wasn’t grabbing us. There were some minor sights to see in each place but nothing earth shattering…nice but just there… Then we got to Hanoi. This place also has a few touristy things to see, it is choking in smog, the food is still drowning in coriander and cucumber…but it has a whole different feel to everything that we had experienced in the south. The touts were there…but not pushy, the shops are cheap, the people remain friendly… everything’s the same but somehow it feels different.
Jill booked us into a hostel ($14 a night…breakfast included) in the middle of town near the Hoan Kiem lake and a short walk from ancient town (the main tourist area). We found a little corner restaurant in ancient town where, believe it or not, the beers were even cheaper. We are now paying 40c for a 500-600 ml beer. We did the tourist schlepp around and the sights were much the same as they were in Saigon…but this intangible feeling was there that made it somehow better. We went to the presidential palace, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Hoa Lo prison (the Hanoi Hilton) and all the other usual tourist haunts.
For some reason the majority of modern buildings in Vietnam have a frontage width of 4.5 meters. So you have this steady stream of tall thin buildings…side by side…but in no way connected. It is just the way it happens over here. They are impossibly narrow, long, generally about 4 storeys high and crammed in side by side. This means that each floor has a tiny staircase a corridor and rooms on one side…and that is it. I had an attempt at street side “Manpering” with a haircut and a shave with a cutthroat razor…India still wins.
After 4 days of generally just soaking up and loving the feel of Hanoi we headed off on a commute to possibly Vietnam’s most famous site…Ha Long Bay. Everyone has surely seen the pictures of this place and we were on our way. The scene of our next adventure would be Cat Ba Island. There is a Halong city but all reports we have had was that it is a tourist hellhole and that Cat Ba was the way to go…you got to see big chunks of the bay rather than the Gilligan’s Island tour that was offered from Halong City.
Alas we had a nightmare transit to get there. It was not far (about 150kms) from Hanoi and it didn’t take too long (about 6 hrs) but every leg of the trip was atrocious. We were in a cab at 6:30am to the bus station, for a 7:15 bus to Hai Phong, another bus to the water ferry, a ferry ride over to Cat Ba island, a bus to the heart of town and an uphill walk to our accommodation. I won’t go into the gory details but suffice to say that every minute of this journey was hellish. And having arrived we had still not seen any of the renowned Ha Long bay as even the boat ride took us through the container shipping channel and delivered us to the anus of the island. The last bus ride gave us a smoggy view of the karsts (lumps) we had come to see but our viewing would wait until another day.
Hanoi 2023 Update…
Upon arrival in Hanoi, we headed straight to the centre of Hanoi’s old quarter to our accommodation. Last time we stayed in the French quarter and had to walk to get to the restaurants and attractions. This time we put ourselves in the centre of it all. And the centre was exactly where we were. We were surrounded by the hustle and bustle that was Hanoi and it was fantastic.
We wandered the streets and checked out all that was to see in old town and found the expected and unexpected hidden gems. Surprisingly we were able to find bamboo ladder street. This was not the actual name but was a place that we happened upon last time around, and had great bia hoi and food for very little money. I can report that very little has changed, the food is good and the beer is still really cheap.
After a few days of wandering Hanoi, we were joined by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Nadim. Now, Nadim (Dim) and I first met back in primary school and have been through plenty together, including years of rugby. In fact, my first solo international adventure was with Dim, back in 1996 where we visited West Coast USA (staying with his cousin), then on to Europe when he took off to Lebanon and I went on a Contiki tour before meeting up again in London.
Upon his arrival we caught up and were kindly offered accommodation at his sister’s (Aline) place who was on a work placement with her family (Tom and Ian). An offer that was gratefully accepted and resulted in us all in the one place and able to plan our days and activities more easily.
The first day out saw us hitting the usual tourist haunts, starting with the palace/temple (Phu Tay Ho/Kim Nguu) on Westlake around the corner from our new home. The palace was built around the 17th century and was dedicated to Princess Lieu Hanh. According to legend she is the second daughter of the Jade Emperor and is one of the four immortals. She is known as the “Mother of Heaven – Mother of all peoples”.
Next was off to Hỏa Lò Prison which is more commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was originally used by the French colonists in the late 1800’s to house those Vietnamese that were agitating for independence and later as a place for American POWs.
Next would be off to the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long but along the way you need to walk past Train Street and the Lenin Statue.
In the centre of Hanoi stands a 5.2 metre statue of Vladimir Lenin, a gift from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, this is the only statue of the Soviet dictator in Southeast Asia.
Hanoi Train Street is a tiny narrow street surrounded by high narrow houses packed closely together where the backyards are the railway and a train passes a few times each day. The tourist bit is only about 100 m long and covers an area where the street is at its narrowest. The train passes literally a metre away from the houses.
Train Street is guarded by corrupt rail guards that will only let tourists in if they agree to buy coffee or beer at one of the restaurants inside (where they get kickbacks). We refused as I have real issues with corrupt officials and being party to their actions. But a couple of times a day the train comes through within a very short distance (centimeters) of the houses and shops that are on the street. Needless to say, this creates much scurrying and putting of things away, and then life goes back to normal…until next time.
The Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long is a complex of historic buildings that were originally built in 1010 and was expanded by subsequent dynasties. Our arrival coincided with the graduation of a large number of students. There were hundreds of children of varying ages dressed in ceremonial outfits and all looking to get photographs at the citadel. We quickly became local celebrities (particularly me this time) shaking hands with, congratulating and posing for photos with a heap of graduating students.
The next day, Dim’s sister Aline had organised a motorbike lesson on the streets of Hanoi. Now lets get serious here. Hanoi traffic is atrocious, in fact, it is for most of Vietnam, so much so that jokes and t-shirts are made bemoaning the quality of the driving.
The USA travel advisory writes this – Traffic in Vietnam is chaotic. Traffic accidents occur frequently. The most common victims are motorbike riders and pedestrians. At least 30 people die each day from transportation-related injuries and many more are injured, often with traumatic head injuries. Traffic accident injuries are the leading cause of death, severe injury, and emergency evacuation of foreigners in Vietnam. Traffic accidents, including those involving a pedestrian and a motorized vehicle, are the single greatest health and safety risk you will face in Vietnam.
So bearing this in mind…we got on some motorcycles and headed off into the chaos. Well most of us did, Jill decided to play it safe and go as a pillion. We started slow in the suburbs and built up to some light traffic as we headed to the Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the city constructed in the sixth century the temple was relocated in 1615 to Hồ Tây (West Lake) where it is now situated.
A slight drama here as one of the group had a minor mishap (not me) resulting in a bruised ego, some shaken nerves and a tiny scratch to a BMW. From here we continued to some heavier traffic and on to a local lunch. Closely followed by a trip to old town amid the real chaos to get a taste of our first egg coffee (more about those later). After that peak hour was hitting, schools were breaking up and we were getting on our bikes and heading back to our starting point.
Lets just say that riding motorbikes in the central part of major Vietnamese cities is challenging. There is a lot going on at all times and it is not for the faint hearted.
Checkbox ticked…did that.
The next day was back on the tourist trail with a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. This is a central tourism area that holds the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh along with a museum dedicated to him. Included in the complex is the Presidential Palace which was originally built between 1900 and 1906 to house the French governor-general. Ho Chi Minh allegedly refused to live in the palace for symbolic reasons and built a traditional Vietnamese stilt house and carp pond on the grounds. In 1975 his house and the grounds were made into the Presidential Palace Historical Site.
A short walk away is the Vietnamese Museum of Military History. This was an interesting way to spend an afternoon with much to see including some big boys toys to photograph.
On the grounds of the museum also stood the 200 year old Hanoi Flag tower which was built in 1812 as an observation post to the Hanoi Citadel. Unlike many other structures in Hanoi, it was not destroyed during the French invasion (1896-1897) and was continuously used as a military post.
West Lake (Hồ Tây) is the biggest freshwater lake in Hanoi. It is northwest of the city centre and has a shore length of 17 km and is a popular place for recreation with many surrounding gardens, hotels and villas.
Ngoc Sun Temple This sits on a small island in the Hoan Kiem Lake just near old town. It was built in the 19th century in commemoration of Tran Hung Dao, the greatest military commander of the Tran Dynasty.
For the first time in a very long time I made my way to church as we visited the Hanoi cathedral (St Josephs) which is a late 19th century, neo gothic style church. It is the oldest church in Hanoi and still holds services.
One of our greatest finds in Hanoi was a tiny little curry joint that had rotis that were about a meter long and around 40 cm wide. We first saw it on day two and after seeing the incredible roti I had to go there. One Roti and a curry could not be finished by Jill and I together. Once Nadim arrived, we took him after our journey to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the War Museum. And just before finally leaving we had one last foray. Needless to say we had about 5 different curries over the period and they were all good.
Vietnam air quality is terrible.
We have not seen a blue sky since arriving in Vietnam due to the smog and smoke. A little bit of research will tell you that there are there are over 65 million registered motorcycles in Vietnam, equaling around two-thirds of the population. Official statistics also report that there are around 60 000 deaths each year that are air pollution-related. So I kept digging and found the AQI (air quality index). This is a numerical measure of the quality of the air in cities around the world, with the various scales represented in the image below.
To give some context to this number, at the time of writing I checked each of Australia’s Capital cities and every one of them returned a reading of 10 or lower (although there was not one monitoring station in all of Tasmania). As I was in Singapore at the time, I checked there and the number was 30. While we were in Hanoi this number never fell below 115 (reported daily) and at its peak hit 185.
According to official Vietnamese sources the major cause behind air pollution in Hanoi is emissions from transport, industrial production activities at factories, urban construction and the burning of straw after harvests.
What we saw was masses of local burning…EVERYWHERE.
The street sweeping ladies would wander along and sweep up all of the leaves and put them into piles and then into plastic bags throughout the day. As they were finished an area and ready to move on they set light to the plastic bag sending the smoke and toxins into the air. At any point in time there may be 5-10 of these burning on a small street at any one time. And this happens citywide.
I added this so that I didn’t finish on an air pollution downer. Vietnamese Coffee is famous for a number of reasons. The first is that it is typically a rich and strong brew. Vietnamese robusta coffee tends to have chocolatey and nutty flavor notes, which are a result of robusta having 60% less sugars and fats than arabica coffee. It is tasty and due to a shortage of “real milk” it usually comes with condensed milk, making it super sweet and strong. A real early morning heart starter.
Egg coffee is a Vietnamese nationally acclaimed specialty made of egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk, and robusta coffee. Back in the 1950’s, the inventor of egg coffee (Mr. Giang), developed the recipe by replacing milk with egg yolks when milk was scarce.
Coconut Coffee – This is served cold and has the equivalent of a sweet coconut slushie on top of the coffee. Coconut cream, condensed milk and ice are blended and the cooled coffee is poured over the top.
Manpering – I found out that Dim was as much of a fan as manpering as I am, haircuts, shave massages, he did the lot. However he did express some concern at my urgings to get a haircut and straight razor shave from a street-side barber, the $3 price tag won out in the end. I did the same a few days later after Dim had gone home, while Jill got a pedicure a few doors down.
This photo was taken on ladder street. It didn’t really have a story but we loved it and had to find a way of including it in our running blog. The stresses of life in Vietnam.
While I started this post with the sentence – We were surrounded by the hustle and bustle that was Hanoi and it was fantastic. I did not feel the same way by the time we left 3 weeks later. The constant beeping of horns was doing my head in. Some drivers and riders sat on their horn and while at the beginning this was cute, by the end I was threatening to jam that f$£*ing horn down their f$£*ing throats.
We loved our time in Vietnam, but we were also ready to leave by the end of the month.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
After our nightmare transit to get to Cat Ba Island we wandered the streets in search of food and drink…we found a western joint that did the most credible attempt at a burger and chips that we have had since leaving home (with a couple of beers) and then found a little street stall selling 2 litre kegs of local beer for 70,000 duong ($3.50)…and it was a hot day…so we had that..closely followed by an afternoon nap.
We organised our Ha Long Bay day trip through the hostel. For the grand price of $24 a head. We hopped the boat at the harbour at 8am where we sailed around Lan Ha Bay, checked out the seriously impressive karst (lumps) landscapes that we had been craving to see the day before. Stopped along the way to hop onto kayaks where we got to paddle through secluded lagoons, under rock arches and through limestone tunnels…basically every perfect scenario for the day.
Having kayaked we got a seafood lunch on the boat as we travelled to the Me Cung cave (inside one of the lumps) where we spelunked. From here we sailed to a private beach where we swam and some snorkelled (supposedly looking at coral reefs). Continued cruising through Halong bay during the afternoon past the floating fishing villages and on to Monkey Island for another swim while the others took photos of the tree rats (monkeys). After this we sailed back to Cat Ba arriving at sunset…not a bad day…
Possibly the best day we have had since leaving Australia…definitely in the top 5.
A group of us from the boat all joined up and headed out that evening to sample the local street food on offer and to tap into those baby beer kegs. Some awesome pancake, rice paper wrap things were found and life was good. The next day we were up and out, hiring motorbikes, for $5 this time, and off exploring we went. This time I went the whole day without crashing the motorbike…but then again…this time I did not try doing donuts in the mud. A little bit of skin lost, some bruises to the ego and a gob full from the wife…no real damage done. This time we just zipped around the island checking out the cool stuff on offer.
We stopped at the hospital cave…a little cave half way up one of the lumps. The 75 cent entrance fee suggested it would be a fizzer but boy were we wrong. This place was huge, three storeys high and built inside the mountain, stairs, rooms, operating theatres, even a cinema. It was used for many years as a bombproof hideaway hospital and as a safe house for VC leaders.
When we hit the water on the other side of the island we sat staring at the sea eagles circling, swooping and scooping fish from the water. This is such a simple activity but is fascinating and an easy way to while away time. We rode back to the tourist side, found a beach and set up camp for a couple of hours. Late afternoon arrived and we were besieged by a tour group of Chinese…they had set up activities on the beach for them (similar to children’s games) and had the doof doof music and MC blasting across the beach. Tranquillity ruined…we rode away.
Cat Ba island only has a couple of real touristy things to see and do and they are good. It has 3 fairly small resort beaches which are ok without being stunning. The key thing it has is as a launching point to visit and cruise through Halong Bay…and for that it is perfect. I cannot think of any way that our stay on Cat Ba could have been better. Google tells me that there are some major 5 star tourist developments planned with bungalows, casinos and expected capacities of around the 6000 mark. If that is he case…plan your visit soon…as such things will ruin the place.
Leaving Cat Ba we were faced with the nightmare transit…but in reverse. After the journey inbound we decided to use a different company on the way out…and it was immediately better. The transit still involved a 45 minute bus to the ferry, a 40 minute ferry to the mainland, a 45 minute bus to the bus station, a wait, a 2 and a half hour bus to Hanoi bus station, a cab to the airport, a wait, a one hour flight to Da Nang, and finally a cab to the hotel. But even with all this it was fine…no screaming kids, no obese Americans with 15 items of luggage each, no obvious skin diseases, minimal loud talking…just a complicated commute.
We visited here twice on this trip…the first one was planned as Jill claims that last time we said that we should spend the night on a boat on Halong Bay rather than just do a day trip. And the other was that Dim was here and you couldn’t come to Vietnam and not see Halong Bay. So this post will cover off on both options that most tourists would do when visiting the famous Halong Bay.
While wandering through the war museum in Hanoi we ran into an met a lovely Italian lady (Chiara) who had ridden out the COVID waves in Melbourne. We all chatted and had lunch (at my favourite Indian joint) and told her we were off to CatBa island and she chose to join in. A quick trip to the bus company and an extra hotel room and we were all set. So four of us set off on our journey.
I re-read the previous post for Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay and everything that I wrote the first time holds true today with one exception. The transit was really easy now, no nightmares just a smooth and efficient transfer. Once on the island, the place is fantastic. The planned developments have partially gone ahead, however COVID slowed the rate of development and also dried up (for now) the influx of Chinese tourists. So at the moment, it is still absolutely lovely.
For decades, Cát Bà has been the launching point for Ha Long Bay and now this has been extended to include Lan Ha Bay. They are basically the inner and outer bays surrounding the island. Lan Ha Bay is made up of around 300 karst islands and limestone sea rocks and is southeast of Cat Ba Island. Lan Ha Bay is equally as beautiful although it is less visited, less inhabited and therefore has the extra appeal of being a more peaceful place.
There is much more here in terms of accommodation, resorts and restaurants than our first trip, but not so much to be silly. Our accommodation was amazing, we had a queen room with a private en suite for the princely sum of $15 a night and it included breakfast. Add to this that the lady on the front desk would bend over backwards to help despite being heavily pregnant. She was a machine.
On our arrival after hte bus trip and ferry ride, we hired scooters for 100,000 dong a day (about $6.50) and after a scooter lesson, given by me, Chiara was up and running with zero fear. This terrified Dim and I, as we knew what could go wrong. But she was fearless and two days later she was even riding with a pillion (a British women she met on the day trip).
We organised a day trip and the next morning took off on the traditional Cat Ba day trip. This included a boat trip around the bay, kayaking, beach time, swimming, a huge lunch and capped off by a fish massage at a local fishing village. This is basically exactly what we had done a decade earlier (with the exception of the feet eating fish). There is a similar day trip option leaving from Hanoi every morning and getting back the same night. I do not recommend this as you are adding 3-4 hours of driving on top of what is an already full day and you will be missing out on most of the activities.
After a full day on the water we headed to the bridge (where Jill and I had eaten and drank so many years earlier) and the four of us had a meal by the bridge (including beers) for 510,000 (about $35). All in all a great way to spend a day. And most importantly we capped it off with a street stall pancake like the ones in Thailand.
Nadim, Jill and I were on the bus back to Hanoi while Chiara chose to stay on and explore the island some more (on the motorbike with the British girl she met on the boat). We did meet up again briefly in Hanoi before she headed back to Italy then we headed to the next point in the journey.
After a bit more time in Hanoi, Dim went home and we headed to our pre-arranged tour and cruise on Halong Bay. This one was a bit flasher than the Cat Ba Trip (certainly a lot more expensive). This was a 2 day cruise of Halong bay, leaving from Hanoi and sleeping overnight on the water. It was lovely, the meals were magnificent and the rooms were amazing, especially given where we were.
While the cruise boat was much nicer, you still got on one of the dodgy boats for all of the daytime activities. And all of the activities were identical, which was fine but we had done it all a week earlier.
Having done Halong Bay in 2 of the 3 main ways available I must say that option 1 of the day trip from Hanoi is a bust and I really discourage this as there is too much to see in one day and it would have been exhausting and unsatisfying. The 2 day trip was much better. You are not pushed for time, you have a night on the water and the tours are all included. But it is seriously expensive.
My choice would be the Cat Ba Island option. Having spoken to Jill about the overall costings the price we paid for our 2 day cruise was about 5 times more than our Cat Ba trip, and the only difference was that we slept on the water. For the amount we spent on the 2 day cruise we could have spent a week on Cat Ba (including accommodation) and had different tours and trips every day (all within the same budget).
Sunworld (if you remember from back in the Danang Post) is in the process of establishing itself on Cat Ba island. The cable car is already in place and the resort is currently being built, along with what will likely be another Disneyland-type development. When it is finished, the entire Cát Bà cable car system will be 21.9 km long with 5 stations spanning the sea to link the towns including Cát Bà national park. When finished, this cable car will have the longest cable line in the world.
Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and was lovely. Very little to see in real terms but a really pleasant feel about it. Most people come for the beaches and the stunning seaside promenade…for this we chose Hoi An instead. Rather we stayed in the heart of the city and took in the riverside promenade scenery and checked out the local attractions. Temples, pagodas, dragon bridges and churches were the order of the day.
Add to this the street side gem restaurant that we always manage to find and life was good. Our first night we found a tent on the side of the road selling cold beer. It was hot so we stopped. We ended up playing menu point and pray, lucky dip and struck gold with 3 awesome dishes of Kim Cut Roty (quail), Ben Cha (mystery meat with raw garlic) and Cai Xao (pork mince with rice cracker and murderously hot chilli). These with 10 cans of beer came to a total of 240,000 dong ($12). The next night was squid, pork ribs and a different mystery meat concoction.
Danang 2023 update
We came to Danang last time around and really liked the place, although there was very little really to do here. Well, that has changed considerably since our last visit. In 2017 the golden bridge was built and has quickly become one of the most visited and photographed things in all of Vietnam. I saw the images and decided that this was something that I really wanted to see.
Being up in the hills, and incredibly popular I have been warned that the bridge may well be shrouded in clouds or packed with people. Anyway, that is why we are here, more about the bridge a bit later on and we will see which version of the bridge we will get to encounter.
The other thing that we saw when we were here last time was the dragon bridge. This was a bridge that had its curves painted and styled to resemble a dragon. It didn’t particularly do anything but was an interesting enough oddity.
Well, this too has changed, the bridge has had a heap of lights added to it and of an evening it cycles through a range of
Well, this too has changed, the bridge has had a heap of lights added to it and of an evening it cycles through a range of colours, however, I still think that the original yellow is the most striking.
Oh yes, they added a couple of other features. Every Friday and Saturday night, to coincide with the riverside night market, at 9pm they put on a fire and water show.
The dragon literally spits fire…
and water, while thousands watch on with awe.
All in all, it is an excellent way to bring people to the city and have them in a central location. From here you have the markets with tons of fresh seafood on offer, along with the usual tourist fare of trinkets. The area is full of restaurants, vendors and performers. All in all it is an excellent evening and is highly recommended.
After this we organised a day trip out to the Cham Islands which is a 15 square-kilometer island cluster consisting of 1 main island and 8 surrounding small islands. It is about 20km from Hoi An and 45 from Danang. We actually tried to go the day before but strong winds meant that the government banned the tourism operators from taking people out.
As we got our tour pulled we decided to walk down to the beach and check that out.
Having gone out the next day, which was dramatically calmer, we were glad they stopped the trip. The seas were brutal. You are in a high powered speed boat, that holds about 30 people, and you belt across the straights at full tilt being bashed and bounced every inch of the journey. And that was on a calm day. Having arrived, the main island was pretty stunning as was the seafood lunch on offer.
Unfortunately, most Vietnamese people cannot swim. This means that they get loaded up in life vests and floatation rings, with goggles on, and tramp all over the reef and coral. So that which is left has been and continues to be pummelled.
And now on to the reason we came to Danang again, the Golden Bridge, situated in the Ba Na hills. On our way to the mountain, the guide told us that there had only been 4 good days of viewing over the last 30, so our expectations were suitably low.
The Ba Na hills area was once a mountain retreat for French emigres, back in colonial times, but had been long since forgotten due to limited road access. The solution to this was to join with European engineers and build the world’s biggest cable car at 5,801 meters in length. Additionally, this cable line has the largest height difference between the upper and lower stations in the world.
This was the introduction that you have, as you ride the almost 6 km cable car up to the French Village and La Jardin D’Amour Gardens. I had only ever seen the images of the bridge online. I did not realise that it was actually part of some massive, artificial amusement park akin to a Vietnamese version of Disneyland, known as Sunworld.
The bridge itself is 150m long, 12.8m wide and is made up of 8 arches and obviously has the two main supports sculpted to look like two giant stone hands.
While it is all fake, it is still very impressive to see and is nonetheless impressive.
As for the type of day we got…not a blue sky in sight. It was cloudy and wet and cold, considerably colder than I had counted on. In fact, I think it was around 10-15 degrees colder up the mountain than it was on the flat of Danang.
At the first stop you have the bridge and a French Village, which has been designed to look like an old fashioned France lined with recognizable classical landmarks such as the square, church, town, old village and inns.
From the bridge and gardens, you get on another cable car that takes you up to Sunworld proper. This is the blingiest fantasy theme park around…but I’m not sure that it means to be. I think that the attempts to re-create European cityscapes and plazas were genuine. There are castles, fountains, cathedrals, you name it…they are incredibly kitsch and tacky looking but fun nonetheless.
Fantasy Park is the largest indoor game zone of Vietnam that includes countless games, recreations and sports for families. The Jurassic Park is a must-visit for fans of movie with animatronic dinosaurs around every corner.
Besides, this complex also puts on offer the first wax museum of Vietnam, in which lifelike figurines are modeled after prominent figures worldwide. A personal favourite of ours was the incredibly blingy Helios Waterfall. This was some type of reimagining of the Spanish steps in Rome, the fountains of Versailles and who knows what else. The blurb tells you to “Admire the collection of classic god statues such as Helios, Apollo, Bacchus, Venus, Athena, and 15 other gods”. All of the statues were painted golden and glistened in the sunlight, oh and the photo with blue skies is Jill’s Camera doing tricks, there was no blue sky in sight.
The one thing that must be said is that the landscaping was incredible. The amount of effort and expense that must have gone into it was phenomenal and it was by far the standout for me. This goes for the entre place. There are obviously feature gardens that are lovely but even just walking around, each path is meticulously done and maintained.
And of course there was the usual amount of funpark randomness to be seen as you wended your way through the place.
As fake and tacky as some of this was, it was still a really good day. The buffet lunch that was included was incredible, the bridge was exactly what it seemed like and if you were willing to fight with the thousands of instagrammers you could get some nice photos. The earlier you arrive the better your chances.
And as a non-gardener…they really need to be commended…they even managed to impress me.
We hopped a bus for the 45 minute ride to Hoi An which is a tourist beachside town In the middle of the country. It is UNESCO listed thanks to its old town which is apparently the perfect example of an Asian port town between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today it is a tourist Mecca with everything imaginable on sale…but most notably the tailors shops. There is a tailor shop every third store ready to quickly knock together almost anything you like…for very cheap.
A tailored suit, with shirt can be purchased for as little as $65 but more likely around the $120-150 mark. You will be measured up and by the next day or two you can pick up your specially made items. This is a long held thing throughout Asia and I have had 2 suits made (one in Bangkok and one in Singapore)..but this place is even cheaper again. Alas our backpacking does not allow for such purchases…but if you were in the market you could not go wrong here.
The town and surrounds are beautiful, the food is great, the place is clean and almost everyone speaks fluent English. If anyone is looking for a 1-3 week getaway you really cannot go past Hoi An. There are 5 star resorts if that is your thing, backpacker hostels or in our case a nice 4 star equivalent joint, with breakfast included and a pool for $25 a night for both of us. We had blue skies throughout our time here and the only detractor was the oppressive humidity that leaves you soaked in sweat if you try to exert yourself too much during the middle of the day. We found that this could easily be avoided by lazing by the pool and swimming.
At night ancient town glows from thousands of lanterns and the shops and restaurants are abuzz with activity. We found an awesome little restaurant on the recommendation of fellow travellers and sat down to the set menu (pictured beside). This place was amazing. your food was on the table before your bum was on the seat.
The staff had you watered, and were showing you how to compile the ingredients listed beside into rice paper rolls and how to eat the local delicacies. So mush so that they will dip the rolls that they make into the chilli and satay sauce for you and actually feed you. From here you are on your own. This place was an eat until you are stuffed joint and I am certain that they would keep food coming as long as you were able to ingest. Round one was more than enough for us.
At the end of our meal we had eaten our fill, washed it down with 4 beers and when our bill came we paid the exorbitant price of $15…for both of us. After a few days in Hoi An we headed back to Hanoi for the trip to Hong Kong. At this point we had had a great time in Vietnam with the minor exception of Saigon. As we were only transiting we stayed at a hotel next to the airport, with a pickup service, for a shower and an overnight kip. Alas our parting memory of Vietnam was spoilt by this…the hotel we booked and another one around the corner was owned by the same mob…one cost 50% more than the other…we had booked and paid for the nicer of the two and upon arrival the pick up driver was told to take us to the other one.
Arriving at the lesser one we were relatively understanding…until we found that the wifi was not working and they had lied to us about services available. Jill hopped online using her phone and found the price differential between the two and the ranting white woman kicked in. Within the hour we had walked out, been picked up by a taxi and shuttled to the original hotel, at no cost to us, and were given what we had paid for. Needless to say a gobful was handed out to any poor bugger who came within earshot of my darling bride.
That night we headed into the back streets to find a meal and came across a tent with a street side smorgasbord. We entered, pointed at an array of items which were piled high onto a plate of rice…then pointed at some beers and we sat down to a great meal. At the end we walked up to pay the bill…which came to a massive 80,000 duong ($4)…this was 2 huge plates of food and two 600ml beers.
Vietnam – an overview
Our introduction to Vietnam was not ideal. Saigon was a busy city and we were staying in the bar district which meant we saw the worst that western tourism can bring to a developing country…lots of old fat men trying to pick up small Asian women (LBFM’s for those that know the terminology). This gave us immediate Philippines flashbacks which were not pleasant. Add to this the poor initial food options and little to see and we were less than impressed.
This was followed by the Mekong delta which was a little better but not thrilling…and then the world changed. Everyone who has been here loves the place and from this point on we both understood why. We actually did not have any negative experiences at any point throughout our Vietnamese odyssey but by the same token it had not grabbed us by the throat like India, China, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka had done.
It is possibly the ideal introduction to Asia that you can find. The people are friendly, the food is good (once you learn to avoid the evil weed that is coriander…maybe that is just me), the prices are cheap, the place is safe, the beer rocks, and the sights are pretty without being historic. It is family friendly, has awesome beaches and Ha Long Bay is a must see for everyone.
I think the thing that turned Vietnam around for us was a change of attitude on our behalf. We had been travelling for almost a year, seeing historic sights and taking in the history and majesty of ancient worlds and huge constructions like palaces atop mountains and the Great Wall etc. Vietnam is not about this, it was smashed during the war and is a nation that is, and largely has, recovered. The historic sites are relatively minor…it is like going to Australia which is 200ish years old and trying to compare it with the colosseum in Rome…apples and oranges.
Once we shook off that way of thinking we loved the place. It is the ideal location for a 1-3+ week holiday and we will come back for just that at some point in the future. It would be incredible to do the country by yourself on a motorbike or similar where you can get up into the mountainous regions and explore the place on your own schedule and timeline. Everything that we have seen would mean that this is entirely possible, and every time we hopped on motorcycles here we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh may be tough to negotiate however as the traffic is entirely nutty.