Vietnam

  • Date: October 2013
  • Duration: 3 weeks
  • Currency: Vietnamese Dong
  • Lasting impressions:
    • Important (but not easy) to visit as an American, to learn about the war. We heard the perspectives from both sides, but nothing warrants the atrocities committed.
    • An intriguing mix of French/Western and Soviet culture and architecture. We started in communist Hanoi and ended in more western Ho Chi Minh city.
    • Temples are oases of serene and quiet, great places to take a break from the noise and activity of the city streets.
    • Flying between hub cities is cheap and fast! Highly recommend as a way to get around if you’re on a tight schedule.
    • Motorbike madness! We learned we had to wade directly into the steady current of bike traffic, hoping that the riders would swirl around us (they always did). Be bold! Don’t wait for an opening, it’ll never come easy.
    • Pho (broth-based soup with rice noodles) is a popular choice for any meal of the day. Look for the small restaurants where you can sit on small chairs next to the locals.
    • Banh mi (baguette sandwiches with meat and pickled vegetables) was a favorite and affordable lunch on the go, a fusion of French (baguettes) and Asian (pickled veggies) cuisine.
    • Vietnamese iced coffee cures all woes: fatigue, hangover, heat exhaustion, you name it. Be sure to add the sweetened condensed milk, vacation is not a time to be calorie-conscious.

Itinerary

  • Hanoi – 2 days
  • Cat Ba Island – 3 days
  • Hoi An – 4 days
  • Nha Trang – 3 days
  • Ho Chi Minh City – 3 days

vietnam-map

Hanoi

Getting there: Airplane ride from the US via China

Highlights:

  • We spent a couple days walking around the city, hitting all the recommended tourist sights and stopping for iced coffee and pho when we were tired and hot. We enjoyed alternating between bustling city streets and markets and the calm, tranquil parks and temples. We could sense communist vibes but the people were always very friendly.
  • Hoan Kiem Lake, big and beautiful body of water in the middle of the old quarter with a temple floating in the middle.
  • Hanoi Citadel,  a yellow building with a pagoda-like roof, surrounded by stone walls.
  • Hanoi Presidential Palace, a striking golden palace.
  • Ngoc Son Temple, seated on the island of Hoan Kiem Lake.
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a huge and imposing concrete structure along a broad open boulevard. You’ll feel small in comparison, and that’s probably by design.
  • One Pillar Pagoda, a distinctive dark wooden pagoda that floats on a single pillar over a small pond.
  • Temple of Literature, a large enclosed park with traditional buildings, temples, and gardens. We were lucky to see a small wedding ceremony being held, and all the women were dressed in the traditional and colorful ao dai gowns.
  • Hoa Lo Prison, where the French held Vietnamese revolutionaries at one time, and then was reused by the North Vietnamese to hold POWs during the Vietnam war, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. John McCain was held here for five years.

Cat Ba Island

Getting there: 3.5 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, then a boat to Cat Ba Island, then another bus to Cat Ba Town

Highlights:

  • La Han Bay and Halong Bay. We took a boat tour with Cat Ba Ventures, bussed to Ben Boa and enjoyed a full day full of cruising, fishing villages, rock formations, caves, turquoise waters, kayaking, and fresh seafood lunch.
  • Cat Ba National Park. We signed up for a private guided hike, and were escorted in the morning on the back of motorbikes up into the hills of the national park. We dressed in shorts and t-shirts, our guide was dressed in full camouflage fatigues… he was prepared for the bugs and sharp plants, we were not. But the scenery was worth the discomfort, lush jungle greenery and layered valleys.
  • Walking along the bay at Cat Ba Island city. It was quiet when we visited (low season), making for a quiet atmosphere of small bars and restaurants, looking out over the boats floating peacefully in the bay.

Hoi An

Getting there: 75 minute flight from Hanoi to Da Nang, and then took a 40 minute taxi to Hoi An

Highlights:

  • Old Town, a grid of narrow pedestrian-only lanes of old-fashioned dark wooden houses, most of which have been converted to restaurants and shops.
  • Lanterns of all colors and sizes, that make the city glow at night. Night strolls are recommended.
  • Lounging at the South China Sea beach, while not the prettiest beach, it is still well populated with lounge chairs and the relaxing sound of surf. Lots of vendors on active duty.
  • My Son ruins. We took a day tour and traveled by bus out to the countryside to see beautiful ruins, many of which were dark red in color and are constructed in a special way without the use of mortar to bond the stones. Sadly many of the structures were bombed by the US during the war, but some are still intact and they are being restored. A popular tourist spot, but worth the visit.

 

Nha Trang

Getting there: 70 minute flight from Da Nang to Nha Trang

Highlights:

  • Po Nagar Cham Towers, a gorgeous collection of golden red buildings collected on a hill.
  • Long Son Pagoda, which boasts two HUGE Buddhas, one glisteningly white towering at the peak of the hill, and another reclined in the shade of the hillside.
  • Beaches. Nha Trang’s main strip runs right alongside the ocean, and has the beaches to prove it! We treated ourselves to a stay at the Sheraton resort and enjoyed the private pool overlooking the ocean and rooftop bar. Perfect for happy hour with games of cribbage.

Ho Chi Minh City

Getting there: 45 minute flight from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City

Highlights:

  • Big, bustling city! The Western capital of Vietnam. Skyscrapers and traffic, but still interesting to see.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels, where you can see the tunnels used by the Vietnamese in the Vietnam war and learn about the guerrilla tactics. Guns and bombs were effectively combatted with narrow tunnels, sharpened bamboo, and concealed trapdoor pits. Our guide fought on the US side of the war, and gave an interesting pro-US perspective that we hadn’t heard anywhere else, but the evidence of war violence was still hard to witness.
  • Ben Tanh Market, a huge indoor marketplace with all sorts of wares, for both locals and tourists. Clothing, crafts, purses, perfume, food, it had it all.
  • Le Cong Kieu, a street teeming with antique vendors selling porcelain and bronze wares.
  • People’s Committee Building, a stately building with a strip of green park space leading to the main entrance, decorated with a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
  • Notre Dame Cathedral, evidence of French colonialism.
  • Central Post Office, train station-esque purportedly designed by Eiffel.
  • War Remnants Museum, hosting photos and information about the US-Vietnam war, documenting the atrocities committed (bombings, chemical gases, napalm). Heartbreaking and eye-opening, not something America publicizes details about.
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda, a challenging temple to find nestled in a neighborhood, but worth the hunt.

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