Vietnam is addicting. Every time we visit, we dread leaving and count the days until we return. Its only a matter of time before we make this fascinating country home. We’ve already scoped out several potential language schools in Saigon, and are debating if we can survive the chaotic traffic and fend for ourselves with our very own motorbike. There is a method to the madness and we are determined to crack the code.
In November of 2004, we planned a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Our trip started and ended in Saigon, Vietnam. The first portion of the trip occurred in Cambodia. These trip notes were taken from 30 November to 10 December, along a route from Hanoi to Saigon. We will definitely plan on returning to Vietnam as we long to explore the Sapa Highland region of Vietnam as well as neighboring Laos.
30 NOV: We were dropped off at Siem Reap airport to catch our flight into Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines. Notorious for delays and cancellations, this flight was no different. We were informed that our flight was pushed back by an hour so we had plenty of time to kill at the airport. Arrived to Hanoi around 2130 and collected our bags without any issues. Di Tam worked her magic and was able to bargain a ride into downtown Hanoi for $15 (for 6 people and 12 bags for an hour drive…not too shabby). We reached the Anh Dao hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi at 2230.
The old quarter is the place to be in Hanoi. Streets are still named for their item of trade (Bamboo, Sugar, Oil, Ceremonial Flags, etc). It is a quaint maze of fascinating colonial architecture and the best place to base a visit to Hanoi from. The Anh Dao is considered one of the better budget hotels in the area. Its fantastic location was ideal for exploring Hanoi and our taxi driver found it with no major issues. We checked in to our rooms and were happy to hear that free Internet access was available in the lobby. Internet! We hadn’t checked email in over a week and had a ton of messages waiting for us. Meanwhile, mom and Di Tam went in search of a midnight snack and were satiated by some of Hanoi’s best pho (made with real broth, tasty thinly sliced beef and paper-thin noodles). We were all wiped from a whirlwind vacation in Cambodia so seeing our comfy beds at midnight was a welcome sight. We crashed hard that night in preparation for tomorrow’s tour of Hanoi.
1 DEC: Got up and chowed at Anh Dao’s tasty breakfast buffet. To cater to European as well as Vietnamese taste buds, various foods were served ranging from bacon and fried eggs to incredibly tasty spring rolls and fried noodles. Over the breakfast table, we met an interesting German man who was working in an enviable job as a travel writer. He had been tasked by a major German publishing house to write an Indochina travel brochure catering for German travelers. What a great gig. Not only was he getting paid but he was “forced” to sightsee Hanoi’s best sights and report back on his findings. We picked his brain on what to see in Hanoi before checking out of our rooms and storing our luggage in the storage facility.
First stop today was the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum complex. Ho’s museum was under renovations so we decided to skip it and head straight for the mausoleum and presidential palace. Every year, Ho Chi Minh’s body is sent to Russia for a three month repair as was the case when we were in Hanoi. We were able to visit the one pillar pagoda, presidential palace, and Ho Chi Minh’s modest dwelling (stilt house). Not surprisingly, the entire complex is very popular amongst Vietnamese school groups as well as throngs of tourists. One of the students, a young Vietnamese boy, was enamored with Becky’s height and started following us around. Finally, he begged Ann to take his photo with Becky so he could brag to his friends that he had finally met a girl who was as tall as he was. Ann commented that Vietnam’s youth sure was getting taller (he was almost 6 feet tall and only in his mid teens which is very tall for the typical Vietnamese) and obliged his request. We spent some time here before heading to another of Hanoi’s must sees, the Temple of Literature. This beautiful sanctuary is a nice surprise in the middle of busy Hanoi. The layout is straightforward: five walled courtyards with several of them containing walled ponds. The coolest thing to see at the temple of literature was the 82 stone stelae mounted on top of stone tortoises.
After being templed and museumed out, we hopped on a local bus back towards Hoan Kiem Lake for a leisurely stroll around it. There were still some folks practicing a late morning session of Tai chi. We were amazed at how popular tai chi is in Vietnam. It seems that everyone has caught the tai chi bug as they were practicing their stretches and showing off how limber they were. There were even some tourists joining in the fun! Halfway around the lake, we stopped to visit the Den Ngoc Son or “Temple of the Jade Mound”. This is peacefully located on the Hoan Kiem Lake. Inside the temple, there is a stuffed giant turtle that was caught in the lake in 1968 that measures over 6 feet long! Which explains why Hanoi’s most famous landmark, the squat three-tier pavilion in the middle of the Hoan Kiem Lake is known as “Tortoise tower”.
All morning long, we had anticipated eating pho for lunch so after our morning excursions, we got lost in Hanoi’s old quarter and stumbled upon a hole in the wall serving incredibly tasty bowls of pho. After lunch, our group split off into two, with Becky, Robby and Ann deciding to sprint down towards the infamous Hanoi Hilton. We hoped that we had enough time to visit the prison before our driver arrived to take us to Ha Long Bay.
While growing up, we had often heard horror stories of US prisoners of war held at the Hanoi Hilton. Of course, everyone has heard of the infamous Jane Fonda and her role at the Hilton…while on a propaganda tour there, she met a line-up of US POWs, several of whom were able to discretely sneak a note into Jane’s hand. She duly shook hands with each of the POWs and at the end of the line, turned the notes into the head guard. Three POWs were beaten to death because of her actions at the prison. Whether or not this Hanoi Hilton lore is true or not, Jane Fonda remains a highly detested woman to most US soldiers today, who view her as the ultimate traitor. We were curious to visit the Hanoi Hilton first hand. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese have their own interpretation of Hanoi Hilton and the US POWs were showcased as having a minor role. Instead, the focus of the prison was on the French occupation and it appears that prison photos of US service members were thrown in as an afterthought. However, Senator McCain’s parachute and jump suit are proudly showcased in their own private display.
After about an hour at the prison, we rushed back into the old quarter where we found our driver parked and ready to take us towards Bai Chay. After quickly loading up our bags, we were on our way towards the Gulf of Tonkin. We quickly learned that driving in Vietnam forces you to lay heavily on your horn (incessant honking forces other vehicles out of your way) as well as a good set of brakes (for those vehicles/bicycles, etc that stop suddenly in front of you). Driving in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart and we were glad that we hired out that responsibility.
Upon arrival in Bai Chay, we realized that the only way to Hong Gai (where our accommodations were located) was via ferry. So we decided to settle on one of Bai Chay’s many budget hotels. Because we were there during the off season, we were able to bargain down the cost of the room and got a fantastic deal (3 rooms for $20). We hadn’t booked a Ha Long Bay tour yet but the hotel owners showed us a photo of their boat and quoted a great deal for tomorrow’s excursion. So we made the necessary arrangement and headed out to town in search of a restaurant. Dinner was simple but delicious and we ended our night in Bai Chay’s nightly market, where the entire gambit of souvenir trinkets was for sale. We bought “Good morning Vietnam” t-shirts for our security guards in Afghanistan and called it a night.
2 DEC: Got up early and paid for the hotel along with our Ha Long Bay tour. By 0800, we were already in the harbor, clambering from one boat to another until we reached ours. A woman rowing a small boat came along side ours and proceeded to sell some vegetables, fruits and noodles to the boat owners. A literal floating market! Little did we realize but that purchase was for our on-board lunch later on that day. We left Bai Chay harbor and went directly towards Hang Dau Go, or “Grotto of the Wooden Stakes”. This cave boasted some marvelous stalactites and stalagmites which were displayed by colored lights. We were the first boat to arrive to the cave but quickly were inundated with hundreds of Japanese and Chinese tourists. Finally, we had to resort to using our own elbows to push our way in and out of the grotto.
Once back on board our boat, we headed off further into Ha Long Bay and made a quick pit stop at a floating fish market. Fresh seafood were swimming around in little pools, ranging from fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, sea-snails, conch shells, and even a massive turtle! Becky thought it was inhumane for the vendors to have trapped a turtle for human consumption. When she tried to buy it, she was astounded by the astronomic prices ($500) so she felt assured that the turtle would not be eaten anytime soon. Ann, Di Tam and Di Sau selected the freshest lunch (shrimp, crab, fish) which came out to a whopping $60 (pricey compared to the food prices elsewhere in Vietnam) but they were pleased, stating that it was a bargain for Ha Long Bay. These delicacies could not be bought anywhere else but in the Gulf of Tonkin so they were quite happy paying top dollar for lunch. Our boat guides immediately set upon grilling lunch for us and within the hour, we were afloat gorgeous turquoise waters, feasting upon a sumptuous spread of fresh seafood. Lunch was delicious and we raved about the magnificent experience we were enjoying on the bay.
After lunch, our boat guides cleared the table and went straight into the business of selling pearls. The prices at Ha Long Bay were phenomenal (especially since we had four Vietnamese with us who were killer-bargainers) and we ended up buying the entire lot of pearls (6 necklaces, 8 rings, 4 bracelets) as gifts back home. We cruised around for several more hours before finally pulling back into harbor, where our driver was awaiting our return. We left Ha Long Bay and headed towards Ninh Binh, which was the ideal stop for tomorrow’s Tam Coc boat ride. Checked into the wonderful Thuy Than guesthouse ($12 a night in clean and comfy rooms). Thuy Than lived in Germany for several years and was thrilled to be speaking to us in German. He used a combination of German, English and Vietnamese and to our surprise, we could understand everything he was saying! Ninh Binh is famous for its duck, so of course we went in search of duck that night. While duck meat is normally fatty, Ninh Binh duck meat is delightfully fat-free and light. We bought two ducks, rice and drinks for a budget $5 and had a wonderful eating experience at a local hangout. Of course the night was capped out with delicious nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) and we all hit the bed satiated and pleased with today’s sights. We were quickly becoming addicted to the allure of beautiful Vietnam!
3 DEC: Had an excellent night’s sleep at Thuy Than’s and woke up feeling refreshed and relaxed. Thuy had pointed out the most popular breakfast eatery in town (pho of course!) and we soon had six steaming bowls of chicken and beef pho for breakfast. Afterwards, we checked out of the guesthouse and were on our way towards Tam Coc, where we purchased our tickets for the boat guide. At the loading area, we found dozens of guides waiting patiently for their turn to row visitors. Our guide told us that she had waited four weeks since her last customers to row us as there are way too many boat guides and not enough tourists. Needless to say, the boat guides try to supplement their income by selling beautiful hand-made embroidery. While we have heard complaints that the guides can get overly aggressive in selling embroidery, we did not find that to be true in our case. We bought two pieces for a bargain ($6) and relaxed to enjoy the phenomenal scenery at Tam Coc.
This sleepy hallow has virtually jumped onto the tourist map overnight after the French movie Indochine was released. We were lured to the area by the description of a “land locked version of Ha Long Bay” as well as “Ha Long Bay on rice paddies”. Tam Coc does not disappoint and we were inspired by our guide’s muscular arms. She rowed us up and down the river for over two hours and didn’t complain about the heavy load once. Another popular variant to rowing at Tam Coc is rowing with one’s feet! We saw several women rowing in this fashion and thought it was a hoot. What interested us most was that the majority of boat guides were women. Why they have the monopoly on this market is unknown to us but it sure was a pleasant way to spend our morning!
On our return trip back, we asked our guide if she could drop us off so we could check out Thai Vi temple. It is located in a serene setting and we spent some time admiring the scenery here. After a short walk back to link up with our guide, we had our first argument. He refused to detour from his set itinerary to take us to the cave pagoda of Bich Dong (Jade Grotto) but for extra money, he’d be willing to. We were paying him good money for his services for the next week and refused to give him anything extra. A big uproar ensued and in hindsight, we should have called the travel agency immediately to rectify the situation. As it was, we let him win round one and the discontentment festered for the duration of the tour. Nevertheless, we were on our way traveling south towards Dong Hoi where we wanted to visit the famous Phong Nha caves. It was a long drive from Ninh Binh towards Dong Hoi, especially since our overly cautious driver refused to go a kilometer over the speed limit. In Vietnam, speeding is a serious offence and on his previous trip, he had been heavily fined due to speeding and lost half the month’s pay. We were unable to convince him to “step on it” and instead resorted to staring out at the beautiful countryside. We started our trek down south at 1130 and with a brief stop for lunch, didn’t reach Phong Nha until 2100 that evening! The roads in Vietnam weren’t as bad as many fellow travelers had warned us about but all of the traffic lights, competing traffic and pedestrians made for a slow and bumpy ride. Even if our driver was willing to exceed the speed limit, the drive still would have taken an awful long time. We ate dinner at a local restaurant and checked into a guesthouse late that night. We took quick showers and crashed out that night after a long day on the road.
4 DEC: Even though Phong Nha is a small town, the traffic cutting through it is never ending! We heard horns tooting and cows mooing all night long. No surprise that we woke up early so we could visit the caves and get on the road towards Hue. After noodle soup breakfast in the guesthouse’s restaurant, we were dropped off at the ticketing office so we could coordinate a tour guide as well as pick up our boat tickets. Our guide was a really educated and pretty Vietnamese woman who had graduated from college with honors. She felt fortunate to be a travel guide earning $40 a month as her wages. Someone with her education (and ability in languages) could easily command a high paying job in the US! We were humbled by the Vietnamese work ethic and felt extremely lucky to be earning US wages when we realized that if we were born in another country, hard work and low pay would be the norm.
The boat ride along the Son River towards the Phong Nha caves was scenic. As recently as 1990, a British expedition uncovered a spelunker’s heaven: 8 kilometers of underground waterway just waiting to be discovered. The tour that we signed up for included a hike up some steep steps towards a dry cave with some incredible rock formations and massive stalactites and stalagmites, followed by the boat taking us into the first 500 meters of the cave, where we could hike inward to further explore the cave. Surprisingly, Becky’s family was highly intrigued with the history of the cave and we spent about 3 hours exploring every nook and cranny.
After exploring to our heart’s content, we headed back towards Phong Nha and checked out of the hotel. Robby had a minor fiasco upon leaving the guest house. He asked for his room key so he could use the toilet one last time and upon entering the bathroom, noticed that the faucet was gushing water. He tried to tighten the faucet but upon applying pressure, it broke completely off and started spraying wildly all over him and his clothes. He noticed the main valve just out of arms reach so with one hand attempting to plug the hole and the other hand outstretched to close the valve, he was in a spread eagled position when the hotel clerk walked in on him! Robby couldn’t explain what was happening in Vietnamese so he tried sign language and in turn, doused the girl. She ran out of the room with the broken faucet and excitedly told the hotel owner, who claimed that Robby should pay $50 to fix the leak. Di Tam and Di Sau weighed in on the controversy and told the owner that Robby was only trying to do a good deed by turning the faucet off. Upon closer examination, we saw that the faucet had been damaged before and that putty was used to seal it in place. Thus an excited verbal barrage continued and Di Tam won by giving them $3 to buy the necessary putty to seal the leak. Becky gave Robby a verbal lashing about always wanting to touch everything like a little kid! The rest of the family thought a soaking wet Robby was a funny sight to behold and they laughed in hysterics at the entire incident.
Escaping from the guesthouse madness, we were on our way towards Hue, which has long been considered the premier tourist destination in Vietnam. Images of the forbidden city, citadel, emperors’ mausoleums and temples were on our minds and we silently prayed that our driver would pick up the pace and get us into Hue early. As it was, we reached Hue at around 1800 and found our hotel without any issues. Later on we found out that we were a victim of a hotel scam but at the time, we were blissfully unaware. Becky had emailed the proprietor of Mimosa guesthouse, which had decent reviews in both Lonely Planet as well as the Rough Guide. She received an email back from a man who purported to be the Mimosa owner. He claimed that the Mimosa had been torn down for renovations and was no longer available. However, he did have another hotel that he happily recommended that was also on Le Loi street. After we checked into the Phuong Hoang hotel, we gazed down Le Loi street and sure enough, Mimosa hotel was still standing and servicing guests. (Later on as we checked out of Phuong Hoang, we are shocked that they demand more money than originally agreed to so lesson learned, don’t take anything verbal! Get it in writing. This normally isn’t necessary because 90% of hoteliers will honor what they tell you but in this case, our trusting nature backfired and we were forced to pay the higher rate quoted upon checkout).
Hue is famous for its famous dishes, and we were excited to try them all! We kept clamoring for bun bo gio heo which is incredibly tasty rice-noodle soup mixed with healthy doses of beef, chicken or pork. We found the best bun bo gio heo eatery in Hue and were highly impressed with the dish. It was even better than initially described and we happily ate several bowls full of the delicious soup. Afterwards, we went to the best che outlet at 29 Hung Vuong for a refreshing drink of green beans and coconut, lotus seed and fresh fruit. For 10 cents a glass, it was a popular venue with the locals and tourists in the know!
One of the most memorable night sights of Hue is the lighting of the bridge with a collage of different colors. Yellow, red, blue, orange and purple night lights showcasing the bridge are on an automatic 20 second rotation, so we sat by the river’s edge to admire the bridge’s free light show. We ended the night by drinking vodka concoctions and had to agree that Hue is one of Vietnam’s most low key and pleasant cities.
5 DEC: Had breakfast at a street side café. French bread is something the Vietnamese picked up from the French and boy have they perfected the art of making it! We ate bowls of pho (big surprise) as well as French baguettes and sautéed steak. A delicious way to start the day. Afterwards, we decide who we want to hire for a perfume river mausoleum boat tour. Our hotel offers us a private tour for $12 but our driver whispers to Di Tam that he has a friend who can do it for less. So we decline the hotel’s offer (which is probably why we got stuck with the higher hotel bill! They had every intent of getting a surplus fee out of us) and agree to hire our driver’s friend and his boat. First stop was by road at the graceful Tu Duc Mausoleum. The grounds were beautiful, surrounded by peaceful lakes and perfectly placed trees. Tu Duc is more famously remembered as being impotent; although he had over 104 wives plus a village full of concubines, he fathered no children. We spent over an hour admiring the grounds here before continuing on to Khai Dinh’s mausoleum. Khai Dinh was heavily influenced by the French, and his mausoleum accurately reflects his affinity for France. Uniquely designed, it is a blend of East (Cham architecture) and West (European Baroque) that surprisingly works. The funniest story we read about Khai Dinh revolved around his flamboyancy. It is reputed that upon his return from France, he brought back a string of fairy lights that he wrapped around himself and ran around the palace with, until the batteries died!
After Khai Dinh, we went back towards Hue and boarded our boat for a Perfume River tour. It was a bit of a rainy and overcast day, so we spent the ride huddling up in our jackets to stay warm. Minh Mang mausoleum was our first stop. Entrance fees into the best mausoleums are rather expensive! At around $4 a person, we saw plenty of backpackers scorning the entrance fee and turning around! My, how spoilt we have become with SE Asia’s budget prices. A $4 entrance fee to anything in London or Germany is readily paid, but many backpackers felt it was an outrage to pay similar prices in Hue. We were glad we did as Minh’s mausoleum grounds are quite spectacular. A combination of lakes and red roofed pavilions made this mausoleum seem quite peaceful. It is reputed to have taken court officials over 14 years to find the right area to erect the mausoleum!
We stopped in several more minor mausoleums and temples on the way back towards Hue. The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the more noteworthy. Founded in 1601, Thien Mu is Hue’s oldest pagoda. We saw a photograph of the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, a monk whose image flashed around the world when he immolated himself in protest of President Diem’s regime. His pale blue car (as seen in the background of the photo) is on display here, along with the world-famous photo.
After Thien Mu Pagoda, we are mausoleumed out and decide to head back for some dinner. Our quest today is Hue’s most famous dish, Banh Khoai. This small, crispy yellow pancake is made of egg and rice flour, and fried up with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts while served with a special peanut and sesame sauce, plus a vegetable accompaniment of star fruit, mint and lettuce. Banh Khoai is delicious! We each eat about 6 pancakes and stuff ourselves silly. Hue lives up to its reputation of having Vietnam’s best cuisine!
Di Tam is still craving for bun bo gio heo so we revisit our bun bo restaurant so she can have her fill of the noodle soup. Afterwards, we continue our tradition of capping off these meals with a delicious drink of green bean or lotus seed desert.
6 DEC: We checked out of our hotel and get a nasty surprise that they have raised the room rates. Displeased by their crookedness, we vow to let everyone know to be careful of staying at the Phuong Hoang Hotel in Hue! While they may claim to be budget, they tack in all sorts of hidden costs and leave a bad impression with us. This morning we tour Hue’s citadel, anxious to explore the forbidden city. Isn’t that just human nature? If you call a city forbidden, it just makes you want to see it more. The citadel is enormous. With a 10 kilometer long perimeter, there are 10 gates that took tens of thousands of workmen over 30 years to complete!
We start our tour at the Ngo Mon gate and stroll towards the Thai Hoa palace. Photography is not allowed inside the palace but we can still visualize the rich tones of red and gold lacquers, clouds of burning incense and 80 ironwood pillars. Afterwards, we cross over the imaginary boundary that delineates the rest of the complex from the Forbidden purple city. Only a handful of buildings remain and we visit both the left and the right houses. In the left house, we are dressed to the hilt in silk gauzes and embroidery for a family photograph. After our brief impersonation as the royal family, we continue our tour of the citadel by happening upon the Thai Bin reading pavilion, Dien Tho (Queen mother’s residence) and ancestral alters. The Hien Lam Cac or “pavilion of everlasting clarity” is one of the tallest and most aesthetically pleasing buildings in the complex. We finish our tour by strolling out from the ancestral alters through its spectacular portal out towards the Ngo Mon gate. After linking up with our driver, we are incensed when he informs us that he will not take us to the covered footbridge located 7 km away as once again, it is not part of his itinerary or contract.
We call up the travel agent who organized the driver for us and she is very apologetic for his surly attitude. She assures us that whatever detours we want to take will be no problem and says that our issue will be fixed immediately. When we walk back towards our van, the driver is in tears and frantically explaining his side of the story to the travel agent. Nevertheless, as soon as he hangs up the phone, he informs us that we are on our way towards the covered bridge as we had requested (although he does add in that if we get lost, it’ll be our own damn fault!) We are able to use Lonely Planets directions to get us there in no time at all. The driver seems amazed that finding the covered footbridge was so easy and now he frets over the travel agent’s threat to fire him upon his return to Hanoi. Half of the group feels bad since we realize this is his livelihood and we don’t want him to lose his job over our complaints. The other half is smug and feels that he has learned his lesson and needs to be out of the customer service department since he lacks any customer service skills. It is a relatively short ride into Hoi An and we arrive at around 1500. We are not allowed to drive into the old city so we have our driver pull over to allow us to disembark. We arrange to meet him in exactly 24 hours at the same location and lug our gear down Hoi An’s quaint alleyways in search of our hotel, the Vinh Hung I. The Vinh Hung comes highly recommended because of its unbeatable location and its impeccable rooms. Robby and Becky are able to book the highly-sought after Michael Cain suite (from the 2002 movie “The Quiet American”), while Ann and Di Tam duke it out with Di Sau and Cau Chin for the next best room in a game of scissors, paper and stone. Di Tam and Ann win and are thrilled with their lodgings. Cau Chin and Di Sau agree that their last place room is none-too-shabby and we ditch our gear as we wander around the city center to orient ourselves around this gorgeous city.
Hoi An is a perfectly preserved, UNESCO world heritage jewel of a city. With an incredible architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences, Hoi An is definitely the highlight of our trip to Vietnam. Our first stop in Hoi An is at the nearby ticket booth. Hoi An has agreed upon a ticketing scheme where visitors can pay to see all the major sights. All proceeds are to go towards the preservation of the city center and it is a pretty sharp setup. Vietnamese pay a fraction of the ticket price that foreigners pay and Becky complains that she should pay a price that is somewhere in the middle. However, she is still considered a foreigner and is forced to pay full price. First stop is the Cantonese Assembly hall, which is packed with a Japanese tour group. We intermingle with everyone else in amazement at the gaudy display of carp and dragon carvings and statues.
Next stop is the Tan Ky house, a beautifully preserved late 18th century shop house. Upon entering Tan Ky, we are invited to sit down and have a cup of tea while the owner’s son explains the cultural significance of the house. It is obvious that the Tan Ky family has prospered well over the past seven generations, as the house is decorated with amazing mother of pearl furniture, and exquisite woodwork. When our guide informs us that that house is extremely high maintenance, he is not joking. Just last week, the water rose to over 5 feet high on the first floor and all the downstairs furniture had to be evacuated to the upper story. He pointed out the watermark on the wall and it is indeed fresh. We are astounded that the locals decide to tolerate such wild fluctuations of flooding and continue to make Hoi An their home. Especially when we are informed that all the houses that face the Thu Bon River inevitably flood several times a year!
After Tan Ky, we decide to take it easy and relax with several glasses of sugarcane juice. We have been informed that Hoi An’s most famous specialty is cao lau, a rice-flour noodle soup that is to die for. Legend has it that the genuine article is created by water drawn from a special well and sure enough, we find the spot where all the locals congregate beside a well for some of Hoi An’s best cao lau. The locals giggle when they see Robby hunch over a plastic table on a plastic chair that can barely support his weight. When he digs into his cao lau with gusto, they smile their approval and have another full bowl on the ready, in case he wants to eat more. Dinner is delicious, topped off with some fried duck that Di Tam managed to scrounge up at the market place.
The last activity of the evening is to buy some silk clothes that Hoi An is so famous for. Dozens of silk tailor shops line the street and Ann finally settles on one she considers the best. There, we lay down mission impossible: sew two ao dais, 20 boxers, 4 pants, 6 mandarin collared shirts, and 3 sleeping bags…all by tomorrow morning! The seamstress goes into full motion, calling up all her reserve tailors to assist in our last minute order. Measurements are taken and memorized, and bolts of cloth are unfurled so we can choose the best colors and textures. Prices here are incredible and we are sad that we have only a day to shop in incredible Hoi An.
We retire back to the Michael Cain suite for some late night drinking and sleep fitfully in our comfy 4 poster beds. Beautiful Hoi An….we haven’t even left yet but we miss you already!
7 DEC: Woke up early (0530) to go witness Hoi An’s fish market spectacle. Unbeknownst to us, the aunts and mom were on a mission to buy fresh fish, crabs, lobster, shrimp, and sea snails. The rest of us simply wanted to take photos of the fish vendors selling their wares. Wearing flip flops was a tactical error, of course there would be fish guts galore. We waded right in the middle of it, elbowing out aggressive fish sellers in the process. The sights and sounds of the fish market are unforgettable: women with straw hats jumping into the river to offload the catch of the day, hawkers chattering excitedly on the going rate of the seafood, and the buyers trying to bargain down to the best possible prices. Early morning at the market is a colorful time to eavesdrop as the locals are out in full force, haggling over the cost of the seafood. Oblivious to our presence, Becky and Robby were smack dab in the middle of all the excitement and like a giant scrum, were pushed from one end of the market to the other, along with masses of other bodies. The closest experience to this was a military tradition of “running the gauntlet”, except this morning it was a fish market’s gauntlet! After an hour of constant pushing, we left the market exhausted. And what timing as the weather took a turn for the worse and simply down poured! Anyone caught out in the open was simply soaked to the bone, as the rain was coming down hard. Cau Chin, Becky and Robby went back to go eat breakfast, while mom, Di Tam and Di Sau went to find a woman to cook their fresh seafood. Later on we found out the chef did the job for a bargain $1. Try to find someone to cook your food for you for only a buck. It was incredible.
After this morning’s excitement, we settled in for a bit more sightseeing and ended up simply wandering through Hoi An’s colorful streets enjoying the hustle/bustle of city life. We still had a few more stops on our itinerary, to include the Museum of trade ceramics (ok), the museum of history and culture (simple) and an hour long medley of traditional music and dance (great). The show was part of the ticket scheme, held at the Hoi An Handicraft workshop on 9 Nguyen Thai Hoc street. Although it was touristy, it was a fun way to spend an hour, after which we returned to our silk store to try on the outfits that were ordered last night.
Amazingly, our seamstress was able to complete our massive order and we happily tried on the clothes in the back room. We knew that she had worked through the night to get the order done on time and boy, were we glad that she did! The outfits were spectacular, and any minor adjustments were done on the spot. We left the store feeling and looking like a million bucks! Marvelous Hoi An silk….it simply is the best souvenir! We reluctantly checked out of the Vinh Hung hotel and walked out of Hoi An towards our awaiting ride. Leaving Hoi An was unlike leaving the other cities along our route, with them we were excited to see our next destination. Leaving Hoi An felt like we were leaving the one destination we had come to see!
Nevertheless, we still had some sightseeing to accomplish before flying back to Saigon that night, and two places on our itinerary were the Marble Mountains and My Khe (more famously known as China Beach). Marble Mountain is known as Vietnam’s most southerly limestone outcrops. We knew not to expect too much from the marble mountains other than a phenomenal view and some good exercise, but the caves were surprisingly pretty good too. Hiking up the steep stairs towards the caves took about 20 minutes and we laughed at fellow travelers who told us that it would take an hour! On the return trip down, we bought some marble mountain stone sculptures as gifts to friends and family back home. Damn heavy blocks of stone…we don’t think they were real marble but they are solid, nevertheless!
After our hiking experience, we decided to hit the beach. My Khe is known to US service members as China Beach, and thousands of them were helicoptered in for R&R during the Vietnam war. Today, we were simply going to have a picnic on the beach before catching our flight from Da Nang back to Saigon. All of Di Tam’s plotting came to fruition as this morning’s seafood selection appeared out of coolers and plastic bags and unveiled themselves atop our picnic blanket. What a feast! We ate way too much shrimp and crab, but who’s counting? The fresh seafood was a treat that we don’t get too often so we weren’t going to turn it down.
On our way to the Da Nang airport, our driver makes a whole hearted apology to the group and tells us that he didn’t mean to be so uncooperative. He explains that his immediate boss told him to strictly follow the itinerary and not to make any detours so he followed his guidance to a T. However, he realized now how upset we were with him and said that he didn’t meant to cause any tension on the trip. And oh by the way, he didn’t want to get fired! We accepted his apology and wished him luck with his boss. (Because of his heartfelt apology, we decided to contact the travel agent and intervene on his behalf, begging them not to fire him. None of us wanted the man to lose his job; all we really wanted was better service which we eventually got).
Upon check in, we are offered a free meal at the airport restaurant. The reason is our Vietnam airlines flight has been delayed. No big surprise, we have come to expect this from Vietnam airlines so we wander over to receive our free dinner. None of us are still hungry after our seafood feast but we manage to eat something anyway. The flight back home is uneventful and we land in Saigon at around 2100. Di Tam manages to hire a taxi van that is big enough to fit all of us and our growing number of bags. We squeeze in and head off for Di Tam’s house where we can unpack and share travel stories with the rest of the family. With all the excitement upon our return, we don’t go to bed until way past midnight.
8 DEC: Every traveler eventually develops stomach issues at one point in their trip, despite all the precautions that they take. We were no exception to the rule and woke up super sick today. We can only guess that it was something we ate yesterday that didn’t sit well with us. Despite being in agony, Robby forces the group to go visit Cu Chi tunnels with him as he pouts that a visit to Saigon without seeing Cu Chi is like a visit to Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower. So we move ever so slowly into the awaiting taxi and zoom off towards Cu Chi.
The Cu Chi tunnels were built by villagers supporting the substantial Viet Cong (VC) presence in South Vietnam. The tunnels today have been widened to accommodate most tourists’ wide girth (ok, admit it, Vietnamese are tiny!) but because of the tight and sweaty confines, if anyone suffers from claustrophobia, being a tunnel-rat will definitely trigger an attack! Robby found his visit at Cu Chi to be fascinating and a highlight of his visit to Saigon.
Afterwards, we headed for downtown Saigon, where Robby wanted to check out the famous Ben Thanh market. We were completely shopped out after Hoi An that after a quick stroll, we were ready to continue on to Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. Next on our list was to see a water puppet show at the Botanical Gardens but we arrived after the show started so we decided to do a bit of jade shopping instead. Becky was able to pick up several nice pieces before we caught the public bus back to Di Tam’s house. Dinner was simple fare of fish and rice and we crashed pretty early, praying that our tummies would feel better tomorrow.
9 DEC: Woke up and felt much better than yesterday. Becky and Robby brought out the gifts to the family: Afghanistan carpets made of wool, silk and cotton for each aunt and uncle and jewelry and scarves for the cousins. We felt like Santa Claus, handing out gifts galore. Hopefully, one day they will walk on top of the carpets instead of tucking them away to prevent them from getting dirty! Becky kept explaining that a carpet needs to be walked on barefoot, and often, but her relatives eyed her dubiously and insisted on keeping the gifts in a safe place, for use on a special occasion!
The remainder of the day was beach day with the family! We decided to go to Vung Tau beach, since it was a relatively quick 2 hour drive to the beach from Saigon. Becky’s entire family wanted to show up and a ton of organization had to happen first. The plan was for everyone to get their own transportation and ride in a convoy down to Vung Tau. Anh Hai (Becky’s cousin) picked us up in his truck and took us to get some fresh crabs. Saying that the crabs were big is an understatement. These were massive genetic mutants with incredibly tasty flesh. No wonder Anh Hai was so secretive about his crab supplier; he didn’t want word to get out!
With over 30 family members converging on the beach, everyone was having a ball. For Becky’s family, a day at the beach consists of maybe dunking yourself in the ocean once or twice, but continually gouging yourself with food throughout the whole day! Roasted duck meat, steamed clams and muscles, durian, soy bean curd dessert, beer, and crab….we ate like absolute pigs for several hours. Word of warning: always make sure you are plenty hungry when you go to the beach with a Vietnamese family, as they will force feed you for hours and refuse to take no for an answer.
On the way back to Saigon, we stopped at Di Sau’s house to say hello. She had prepared a feast for us to eat but we simply had to refuse since we were absolutely stuffed. Ann forced us to eat just a little bit, since saying “I’m not hungry” is paramount to committing a major sin in Becky’s family.
After a few hours, we headed back to Saigon to pack our bags for the return trip back home.
10 DEC: Woke up really early for our return flight back to Tashkent. Despite last night’s entreaties not to make us breakfast, Ji Phuong had steaming bowls of pho awaiting us at 0500. We ate as fast as possible and packed our bags onto Anh Hai’s truck. Said our tearful goodbyes to everyone and headed off for the airport.
All in all, a wonderful adventure that we were lucky enough to have experienced with family. We absolutely loved Vietnam and are seeing how we can invest in some land there right now. What a phenomenal and diverse country. Such beautiful people with such incredibly open hearts. We were blessed to experience Vietnam in a time of peace and know that the country continues to rapidly grow in our absence. Until next time, we bid Vietnam adieu.