Deb & Roger’s YB Travel Adventures to Vietnam 2005, 2006, 2010
Our first trip to Vietnam in 2005 wasn’t very long. We were in Bali and our Visa’s were expiring. Roger found a special to Hanoi for only about $60.00 each so we booked it. We ending up really enjoying our time in Hanoi, and really loved Hoi An, a town further south. So we decided we needed at least a month, and made plans to include it on the agenda in 2006.
We began our 2006 journey in the south, flying into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Being in Vietnam had a very special significance for me since my dad was in the war. I felt like I was following in his footsteps, however, with safety, security and comfort. We explored the city and took a couple of sidetrips. One included a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels which was sombering, and visiting a spectacular temple called Cao Dai. We found out about a bus ticket that, at the time, you paid something like $27.00 and you could go from south to the north, stopping at most of the cities along the way, giving them a 24 hour notice and you hopped on the next bus. Sounded ideal since renting a car required having a driver. And we couldn’t travel long distances on a motorbike. So we booked it.
We left Ho Chi Minh City and headed to Mui Ne, one of the most beautiful beach destinations in Vietnam. It is also the wind and kite surfing capital and was a nice place to hang out for a few days. Lots of erosion on the beach, but we find that with every where we go, water is rising and it is getting more difficult to protect the beach communities. This place had the most awesome sand dunes, some red, others white and they were across the street from the beach. Kids would try to sell you something to sit on and slide down. We also rented a motorbike and drove about an hour south to see a large Buddha so high on the hilltop that they have put in in Gondola to reach it. Quite impressive. Then we went south one day and once out of this little village it was like we were the only two people on earth. The sky was huge as we drove an hour or so out of town and back. After checking out a couple of places, we couldn’t pass up $20.00 a night (grand opening special) for a gorgeous suite type room on the beach, complete with pool, internet and breakfast. What a deal!
We did the perfunctory call to let the bus company know we wanted to be picked up and true to their word we were picked up, albeit not in a big bus like the photos showed. But a small van type vehicle. We later found out they use different vehicles based on the number of people. We headed north west and climbed and climbed and climbed before reaching the central highlands town of Dalat. The city’s temperate weather stands in contrast to Vietnam’s otherwise tropical climate. Mist covers the valleys almost year-round leading to its name “City of eternal spring”. This is an agricultural area. Its flower industry produces two typical flowers: hydrangea (Vietnamese: c?m tú c?u) and golden everlasting (Vietnamese: hoa b?t t?). The confectionery industry offers a wide range of m?t, a kind of fruit preserve made from strawberry, mulberry, sweet potato, and rose. The cooler climate is a respite from the heat and humidity at lower levels. And the air is fresh and sweet. It is a beautiful place to spend a few days.
Next stop was NE to the beach side town of Nha Trang. The Lonely Planet compared it to Pattaya in Thailand so we almost didn’t give it a chance. But we like to make decisions based on our own experiences so took the bus and headed from the hill top to sea side. When we exited the bus they suggested we stay at a small, clean, inexpensive place several streets from the beach. But we decided to look around and ended up finding a beautiful room a block from the beach. And within our budget. We had a spacious room with a view and internet. We could walk to the beach and we hang out at the Sail Club where we rented chairs for the day and enjoyed western treats like ‘Cafe Latte’.
Nothing about Nha Trang reminded us of Pattaya and we were so happy we didn’t bypass it. We walked all over the town, visited Temples, took a small boat tour to snorkel which included lunch and entertainment by the boat crew. The water was beautiful, people friendly and we extended our stay for a few more days. We went to the mud baths which was quite an experience, and highly recommended. But we had a decision to make. We had now been in Vietnam for a month and were only half through the country. We asked at the front desk about extending our Visa’s and they said no problem. We gave them $20.00 for each one, and they took our passports and we had them the next day. Vietnam is the only country we have travelled where each hotel keeps the passports. Nervous at first, we realized this keeps the tourist safe as all the inn keepers are totally accountable to the government. Once the Visa’s were back we headed North on the bus to our next stop, Hoi An.
We absolutely loved Hoi An, as do most tourists, and have been back several times. The town is a major tourist attraction because of its traditional architecture, crafts such as textiles and ceramics preserved. Many bars, hotels, and resorts have been constructed both in H?i An and the surrounding area. The port mouth and boats are still used for both fishing and tourism. It is a lovely town located on the river, with the beach just a short distance away. The restaurants are fantastic, food and drink inexpensive, a lively market, and great place to just be. We have stayed in different places each time and my favorite was the last place which was between the town and the beach.
Hoi An Resort was brand new. There were few if any people staying there so we walked in to see if they would negotiate a better price. And they did! We were excited, it was a beautiful place and we had an amazing room, nice big pool, it was lush and tropical with views of rice fields to the side and back. And it was really convenient. We rented a motorbike and explored the area all the way to Dalat and back. They were just building the beach road between Hoi An and Danang and of course we took that one. Though only about 30 kilometers, it took some time, as the road was primarily dirt, under construction and we had to criss cross back and forth depending on where they were working. But we made our way up to Marble Mountain which is where we bought the statues we have in our yard. And visited the infamous China Beach.
Leaving Hoi An we took a cab to Danang then caught a bus headed to Hue. The Hai Van pass between Hue and Da Nang is one of the most beautiful passes in Vietnam. It’s very famous for spectacular view of mountains, bays and islands. Along with Hue, Hoi An and Lang Co beach in the central Vietnam, the Hai Van pass is one of the not-to-be-missed places if you visit the region.
Hue Vietnam is well known for its monuments and architecture. And the Tet Offensive. In the Vietnam War, Hue’s central position placed it very near the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam; however, the city was located in South Vietnam. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Hue, the city suffered considerable damage not only to its physical features, but its reputation as well, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings as well as the massacre at Hue committed by the communist forces. After the war’s conclusion, many of the historic features of Hue were neglected because they were seen by the victorious regime and some other Vietnamese as “relics from the feudal regime”; the Vietnamese Communist Party doctrine officially described the Nguyen Dynasty as “feudal” and “reactionary.” There has since been a change of policy, however, and many historical areas of the city are currently being restored.
They have small dragon boats that take you down the Perfume River so we booked a day to visiting all the momuments and tombs. You don’t have to get off the boat, but it was interesting and we wanted to see everything so we visited Hon Chen, Khai Dinh Tomb, Minh Mang, Thien Mu Pagoda and Tu Duc Tomb. It was a beautiful day on the river but at the end we had our fill of history. Another day we rented a motorbike and headed out to the beach and rode through local villages rarely encountering anyone else on the road. The children would wave and say hello, excited to see a foreigner. In Vietnam there aren’t a lot of tourists on their own. You are usually on a tour bus, or in a car driven by someone else. We don’t travel this way unless we have, too, preferring to travel independently. We like to go where we want, when we want.
We took the train to our next stop, Ninh Binh a province in the Red River Delta region of the northern part of the country. We usually like train travel but this wasn’t the most pleasant experience, Roger wasn’t feeling well and it wasn’t comfortable. We were so happy to finally arrive and get to the hotel. Ninh Binh is a small town about 100km south of Hanoi, which is surrounded by a number of lesser known interesting sites. But most tourists go to visit Tam Coc where you can take a boat tour on a river which is surrounded by a landscape of limestone mountains reminiscent of some the better known sites of South China. The river is actually used by local villagers to access their rice fields. The nearby Ken Ga canal provides the opportunity to observe river life in the North, and contrast it with what you can see in the Mekong Delta. The whole area was an important center of catholicism, and you still see churches among the rice fields.
Roger ended up really sick, it coming on quickly and he had an extremely high fever. Our hotel called a local doctor and he came and treated him, gave him some type of medicine, and only charged $5.00. After he was settled in and resting comfortably, I hired a motorbike driver to take me to some caves, a village where they row with their feet and a few other places that were too far to travel by foot. We rode for quite a long time, through stunning villages and I was the only western person I saw during that entire trip.
I was dropped off at a ticket counter where for about a $1.00, I bought a ticket on the boat to get to the village and cave. The boats were made of cement. My driver was a woman, and she didn’t speak English. I was the only one on the boat. It was a beautiful ride up the river, and into the village then she motioned for me to get off the point and pointed at a hill quite a distance away. I started walking across a dirt causeway in the direction she pointed, looking back and getting a nod that I was headed the right way. On each side of me was water, one side clearly a lake, the other looking more like overflow. There were lotus and other plants growing water buffalo grazing and one man fishing. Other than this, I was all alone. Looking up at the beauty and spaciousness all around me I felt so light. And such peace.
I finally made it to the cave. There was another couple of people getting ready to descent. A man, our guide, pointed to a flash light, held out his hand for a dollar and I followed him down. Once we had explored the cave, I retraced my steps, got on the boat and we headed back to my motorbike driver. When he dropped me off at the hotel I marveled at what an extraordinary day this had been. Roger still wasn’t feeling well the next day so I visited Tam Coc by myself. The boat ride through the caves with the mountains jutting up on each side of us was stunning. The only down side was the agressiveness of the boat rowers. They try to sell you things which you don’t need and I finally had to tell them they would be getting a tip but only if they let me enjoy the ride. It took awhile but they finally quit pressing.
After several days Roger felt well enough to travel so we took a bus to Hanoi. It was crowded and not very comfortable so not that pleasant but once we settled into our hotel in the old city, he rested and next day was almost back to normal. We walked the tree lined streets of the old city, stopping to eat where we saw a lot of locals seated at low stools, often on the sidewalk. Because of the French occupation the bakeries have scrumptious offerings which we indulged in. The old city has narrow streets so you do have to use caution when walking, but if you wait to cross when there is no traffic you’ll never get across. So you just walk and usually don’t have to be concerned about being hit. People go around you if on a motorbike. But always good to be aware. We walked the lake, sitting at the coffee shop on the corner and watching life go by. And booked a trip to Halong Bay deciding to make it a 3 day, 2 night with one night on the boat and the other on Cat Ba Island. This was magnificient, a must do and a Unesco world heritage site.
The thing about Vietnam is you have to negotiate, negotiate and negotiate. Everyone on our boat paid something different. We had one of the lowest prices because we negotiate but other people paid a lot more for the same thing. The other thing you have to be aware of is bait and switch. So often when we book a tour, I find the boat I want then shop different places for pricing on going on that boat. But this takes time and if you only have a week or two best to have someone handle all this for you and not worry about the price. For example, we wanted to go to Sapa for 3 or 4 days. They showed us a bullet train but we had not seen one of these anywhere in Vietnam. Now becoming wiser to the way the operate I asked if that was the train we would be taking and they said no. I asked where they got the photo and they said the internet. So to definitely buyer beware. But this is everywhere.
We found out that there were many trains to Sapa and the one we chose was the Victoria Express Train. It was reminiscient of a more romantic era as you pass through the exotic landscapes of North Vietnam, between the charming cities of Hanoi and Lao Cai. Each sleeping carriage has 4 berths and 2 deluxe cabins. Somehow, the people at our hotel booked us into the 4 berths which put me in the room with a middle class couple and their daughter. Other than that it was a pleasant ride, we slept good and arrived early the next morning. When we got off the train there were people there to negotiate the ride to Sapa and once our vehicle was full we took off.
Sapa lies in the very north west of Vietnam near the Chinese border. Along with Halong Bay it is the “other” major excursion from Hanoi. Time permitting you can do a circuit around the northwest highlands which takes in Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and finally Sapa before heading back to Hanoi. This would take at least a week by private vehicle and longer on local buses. During the wet season roads can be treacherous with landslides common.
In reality the vast majority of visitors arrive in Sapa from Hanoi via Mai Chau and don’t go on to discover the spectacular scenery of the Tonkinese Alps where Montagnard hill tribes have lived for centuries. And we were no exception, this was a preliminary trip to see if we want to return and that is a big yes. From here we went back to Hanoi for another day or so then took a flight to Singapore, spent a few days there. Then on to Thailand for about a week then to Myanmar (Burma) before coming home.