Monthly Recap: Month 10

Well, this monthly recap is very late! It would have come out, should everything have been normal, on May 2nd. However, as many of you know, we were actually getting ready to come home after experiencing the Earthquake in Nepal on May 2nd. Because of that earthquake, Month 10 turned out to be the last month of our trip… We had been planning on making it until Month 11, but the world had other plans for us. Month 10 had some great times as well as some not so great times (see aforementioned earthquake). Let’s recap, shall we?!

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Vietnam, China, and NepalSpecial Administrative Regions: 2 (Hong Kong and Macau)

Beds Slept In: Tarps Slept Under:Embassies Slept In: 1 (Hopefully the first and last of our life.)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 7 (My Son Sanctuary, Complex of Hue MonumentsPhong Nha – Ke Bang National ParkCentral Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – HanoiHa Long BayHistoric Centre of MacaoKathmandu Valley) *** As of July of 2015, there are have been many new UNESCO sites added! We were pretty excited that two places that we visited on our RTW were now recently added! YAY! Those include Singapore Botanical Gardens (visited in Month 7) and Ephesus (visited in Month 5). Total on RTW: 49

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 4 boats this month.

We traveled 4 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 1 train this month.

We traveled by 2 helicopters this month.

Top Moments:

~ Our biggest emotional high was when we were rescued by helicopter from Bamboo Village in Nepal. We had never ridden in a helicopter before and on that day, we rode two. We couldn’t have had better scenery: the beautiful Himalayas of Nepal. Despite the destruction caused by the earthquake and landslides, Nepal is a gorgeous country, well worth a visit! If you are interested in supporting Nepal after the devastating earthquake, check out some ideas here

 

Runners Up for Top Moments:

~We had an absolutely lovely day biking through the outskirts of Hoi An. We went a bit off the beaten track and biked through rice fields to a great beach! Good day all around.

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~We rushed through Phong Nha National Park in order to see some of the renowned caves there. We struggled with which tour to choose, but ultimately went with a general tour of three caves. It was all amazing, but our favorite part was experiencing swimming through a mud bath in the Dark Cave. It was hard to explain the feeling of floating through a pool of mud – how we imagine it would feel to be on the moon – almost weightless! Overall, a lot of fun!

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~We really enjoyed lots of places in Vietnam, but another great day was when we kayaked through the karsts in Lan Ha Bay. We had a lovely day in great scenery!

Getting used to the kayak

Getting used to the kayak

~Another great day was when we took the funicular up Hong Kong Peak. Great weather – it wasn’t too hot way up there, and  you just couldn’t beat the views!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

 

Honestly, we don’t really remember… Sorry!

Packing Update:

We were glad that we had held on to our colder weather gear because we used every bit of it in Nepal. It was particularly good when we hit an emergency situation and ended up having to sleep outside for 5 nights.

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4)

Eric has read Overkill by James Barrington (2), Gods of War by John Toland (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read Tai-Pan by James Clavell (4)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8, Monthly Recap 9

Budget: Vietnam

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Vietnam. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Vietnam we used the Vietnamese Dong. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 20,000 Dong to $1.00.

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Total Spent (20 days): $1324.30

Accommodation: $327.40

We stayed in mostly small hotels and guesthouses. We stayed in one dorm room in Phong Nha.

Activities: $306.80

This included all museum entrance fees. Amazingly, it also included four day tours: Cu Chi Tunnels, My Son, kayaking in Cat Ba, and the most expensive: a cave tour in Phong Nha.

Alcohol: $6.80

We only count alcohol costs when it is not purchased with other food. However, beer is amazingly cheap in Vietnam. This price includes 6 separate instances of buying alcohol (for two).

Food: $259.61

Food is delicious and affordable in Vietnam! Many of our accommodations also included free breakfast!

Miscellaneous: $47.98

This was mostly laundry and sending postcards. We also purchased new sunscreen which was a little expensive. We bought a few souvenirs which we were able to send home with Della’s parents.

Transportation: $257.72

We did quite a bit of moving around in Vietnam. This included buses, an overnight train, air flights, cabs, airport pick ups, and some bike rentals!

Visas: $118

Visas are a bit complicated for Vietnam. First you have to gain an approval letter which you must do before you arrive in the country. There are a couple of options for how to get the approval. We used a website called Hotels in Vietnam. It was a pretty, easy but somewhat expensive and time consuming process. We applied for the letter on the 14th of the month and didn’t get it electronically  until the 17th. Once you have the letter, you print it out and take it with you. When you arrive in Vietnam, you must have the letter and passport photos and you must pay another fee. Even though we did everything right, it still took close to half an hour to get the visas processed in the Saigon airport.

This divides out to $66.22/day which is under $100/day budget! Now that’s what we were hoping for in Asia! We even felt like we splurged on activities and accommodations, and we were able to remain this low, so it just goes to show that Vietnam can be an inexpensive place to travel.

 

 

Cruising the Karsts Around Cat Ba, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

One of the biggest tourist draws in all of Vietnam is the scenic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay on the coast east of Hanoi. We considered a visit there, but when researching came across many stories of how scam-prone it was to take a trip on the bay. We then found out about the neighboring Lan Ha Bay, which also has the characteristic karsts but is further away, so less infiltrated by large tour groups. Another benefit of Lan Ha Bay is that it easily visited as a day trip from the sizable town of Cat Ba, on large Cat Ba Island. This sounded like a better fit for us, so after our time in Hanoi we took a two day trip out there.

Getting There

Based on the advice from Lonely Planet and our Hanoi hotel, we booked a multi-step trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba town using the one company that offers this service – Hoang Long transport. It was a long and somewhat grueling process, but we did make it to Cat Ba as promised with no last minute fees, so we felt it was worth it. The steps were:

  • Taxi from our hotel in Hanoi to the bus station
  • Bus from Hanoi to the Hoang Long office in Haiphong. This bus left earlier than the ticket stated, but went somewhat slow as it would pick up and drop off people anywhere along the road. It was a bit of a strange ride too, because for the first half of the journey they looped a show of old-time Vietnamese music performances about four times over, then for the second half they switched to videos that showed scantily-clad women dancing to pop music.
  • After a wait at the Hoang Long office, a different bus from the office to a ferry terminal on the coast
  • A 30 minute or so ferry ride across a channel to another ferry terminal on Cat Ba Island
  • A bus ride from the ferry terminal to the Hoang Long office in Cat Ba town
  • Walk from the office to our hotel

Where We Stayed

Cat Ba is a big tourist draw, especially in the summer, so there are plenty of big hotels right on the water. We chose the Gieng Ngoc, which was on the somewhat quieter end of the main road. Both the two of us and Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) went for a small upgrade to get a room with a balcony overlooking the water. Our room itself felt a little dated, but the view was quite nice, so we were glad we made that decision.

What We Did

As you might expect, one of the big draws of visiting Cat Ba is taking a tour out into Lan Ha Bay, so our first order of business after getting checked in and grabbing some lunch was to go around town and find a tour for the next day. A few different offices on the main drag offered some decent-sounding tours with both snorkeling and kayaking, but we kept looking because we were hoping to find something that was more oriented to just kayaking. We found just such a tour at Asia Outdoors. Their main focus is rock climbing, but they also offer full-day kayaking tours. We booked one of these for the next day, then asked them for guidance on what to do with the rest of our afternoon.

They recommended that we walk out to the beaches just outside of town. The first beach was just an easy 20-minute walk away.

 

Wayne is never one to turn down a swim, so he got into his suit and dove right in. The rest of us decided it was a little too chilly, so we just relaxed and watched the groups of Vietnamese teenagers frolic in the surf (maybe they had just graduated like the groups we saw in Hanoi?). Some of them were even playing in organized team activities that we had fun trying to figure out (future Rendezvous games ideas?).

To get to the second beach we took the nice pedestrian path along a cliff face. This gave us an excellent view of the karsts of the bay that we would be kayaking through the next day.

At the second beach Wayne hopped right back in the water.

From the second beach there was a road that led back into town, making for a nice loop. We walked back in and then headed out for dinner (more on that later). After dinner, we enjoyed just walking down the main drag. The teenagers were out in groups and seemingly having a lot of fun. One of the most popular activities was to rent a tandem bicycle and ride up and down the street.

The next day, we woke up bright and early and headed over to the Asia Outdoors office. They rounded up the group of kayakers and rock climbers, then shuffled us into vans for a short trip over to a small harbor. Here we got on the traditional junk boat that was our transportation for the day.

It was a nice large boat with tables and benches downstairs and a platform upstairs. For the first part of the ride, we stayed downstairs and enjoyed the view as we cruised out into Lan Ha Bay. The boat dropped off the people that were going rock climbing, and then we moved up to the top. The boat had to stop at a depot to pick up our kayaks, and then drove us to our first spot.

We got into our kayaks, which were two-person set-ups made up heavy fiberglass. You sat down inside, but no net or anything like that. Della took the back seat. After the group was all in their boats, our guide led us on a tour of the different spots. We kayaked through a hole in a karst, then around some others.

We headed to a place where at high tide you can go in to an isolated lagoon. This is very low tide though, so we had to park a ways a way and walk in over the muddy ground and sharp rocks. It was pretty inside but not too much to see.

Our next stop was a beach, where there was a small cave with a shrine inside. We also tried to help a giant jellyfish that was near the shore get back out in the open water.

We rode into one cave, where we were able to get pretty deep since the tide was so low. We went around another karst, through another opening, and then headed back to the boat. In the distance we could see a karst with a hole underneath that the guide said was on one of the Vietnamese dong notes, but we later couldn’t find it.

Back on the boat, we rode back to pick up the climbers. On the ride over we got to talking with some of the people on the tour, and they were very easy to talk to. During this ride our lunch was ready, so we headed down to the cabin area. It was a variety of Vietnamese dishes served family-style, and all very good. We were stuffed! There was also a pause when we let some overnight guests off, and Wayne and Della took the opportunity to jump in for a quick swim.

The boat drove us back to the kayak depot, where we got out for our second round of kayaking. This was with a larger group since some of the climbers came. This time Eric got in the back.

This trip wasn’t quite as scenic but was still nice. We were led past floating villages, where fisherman live on the water and have large setups to grow fish and to catch squid. We went into a large interior cove of one karst. Della got out and swam here, but didn’t linger long because we had seen a few of the large jellyfish. We road back around through some more karsts and past a sunken concrete boat. Wayne wanted to go out to the open ocean, but no one else did so he didn’t.

We kayaked back to the depot and returned our kayaks. Once everyone was onboard, the boat headed back to harbor. We enjoyed the views of the bay in dwindling sunlight. Peggy stuck up a conversation with a group of New Yorkers who had gotten on at the depot – as it turned out, one of them was the founder of Asia Outdoors, so it was interesting to hear his stories.

The minivans took us back to Cat Ba town, and we rushed to make sure and get good shots of the sunset from the boardwalk and then the rooftop terrace of our hotel. A long day, but a fun one. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and the amount of kayaking seemed to be just right!

The next morning, the two of us just hung out in the room and caught up on the blog, but Wayne and Peggy still had a bit of a sightseeing itch. They hopped on the back of motorbike taxis and took a ride up the hill behind town to the Cannon Fort situated on top. From here they had great panoramic views of the island and the bay beyond. There were also a few exhibits from the fort’s use during the French and American wars.

Where We Ate

As we said, Cat Ba is definitely a tourist town, so there are plenty of places to eat along the main drag, all with about the same menu. It was still early April when we visited though, so some had not yet opened for the season. We tried three different places that were open, and none particularly stood out. They all had seafood dishes which Wayne was interested to sample. Della isn’t as much of a fan of seafood, but was able to find dishes like curries to satisfy her.

On the first night, it was Eric’s birthday, so we also went out in search of “fresh beer,” the very cheap local beer that has been recently brewed (that we first tried in Hoi An). It was a bit of a scavenger hunt, but we finally found one place and enjoyed a couple of glasses.

Getting Away

From Cat Ba, we wanted to get back to Hanoi, and again the recommended way was to book a combination ticket through Hoang Long. We took the 1:30 bus back to the ferry port on Cat Ba island, then the ferry back across to the mainland.

From here our journey changed from what we were expecting. While we were on the ferry, a guy who we didn’t recognize said that the four of us should follow him once we got off. We were a little skeptical, but a big group followed him so we went to investigate. As it turned out, they were a tour group coming back from a multi-day trip and headed back to Hanoi, and the guy we were following was their guide. There were a few empty spots on their minibus transport back, so some arrangement had been made for us to get on that. This saved us from having to transfer to a different bus in Haiphong.

While on this bus, we did witness some of the rudeness that we had been warned to expect in northern Vietnam. Another couple had also gotten on the minibus, seemingly with the same permission from the guide. After a break at a rest stop though, the guide came to the back where they were sitting and stared at them hard for a minute, then asked to see their ticket. They showed it to him, and he accused them of getting on the wrong bus at the rest stop! They protested, and the rest of us backed up their claim that they had been on since the ferry. The guide wasn’t satisfied, and flagged down a passing Hoang Long bus on the highway. Both our bus and that bus pulled over, and the guide tried to get the Hoang Long bus to take this couple. But that bus didn’t like their ticket either, so they had to get back on the minibus. The guide threw his hat down in disgust and sulked the rest of the journey home.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time on Cat Ba. It helped that we found a tour that met our desire to kayak so well, and that there was such great weather to allow us to really appreciate the scenery of the karsts. At least for us, choosing to stay on Cat Ba and do a day trip to Lan Ha Bay over cruising into Halong Bay turned out to be the right decision.

Hanoi, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

After our trip to the caves of Phong Nha in Vietnam, we headed to the capital and center of the northern part of the country, Hanoi. Here we met up with Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) once again, and spent three days exploring the sights. Hanoi has an extensive history: founded in 1010, served as the imperial capital until it shifted to Hue in 1802, the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of the unified Vietnam.

We had heard mixed reports about the city, with many people saying that the people were unfriendlier than those in Saigon, and that the narrow streets were unsafe to navigate with crazy motorbikes flying around. Also, we wondered how Americans would be received in northern Vietnam, where for so long we had been the enemy. So, we were a little anxious to visit and see how the city would strike us.

Getting There

We ended up using airline points to book a cheap flight from the Phong Nha area directly to Hanoi. The flight was a first for us in that it was on a propeller plane. This made us a little nervous, but it all went smoothly. The flight was so quick that we only got served water!

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The Hanoi airport is pretty far out of town, so once we landed we still had a bit of a journey to get into town. There isn’t an easy way to do this, so we booked a private transfer through our hotel.

After we left the baggage claim area, we were a little perturbed that no one was waiting for us with our name on a sign as we had been promised. We stood around for a minute and finally a guy showed up fumbling the sign. He was also messing with his phone and eventually motioned to us to sit while he made some calls. We were pretty confused. Our inquiries were not really answered as he didn’t speak English very well.

Eventually he led us outside and out to the parking area… where we got on a medium-sized bus! We were now very confused since we thought we would be riding in a car. Our “handler” left and went back towards the terminal, leaving us with the bus driver who also didn’t speak much English. The bus then exited the parking area… and went to the international terminal. More confusion. We waited in the pickup area for 10 minutes or so, but no one ever got on. Security eventually motioned to him to leave. He made some phone calls, then exited and drove out to the city.

 

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

The drive in took almost an hour. We were nervous, but the bus did indeed drop us off right in front of our hotel.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in the Golden Time Hostel 2 (there are three locations in Hanoi), which was more like a hotel despite its name. Probably the best part about the Golden Time was the friendly staff that work at the front desk. Tony and Ahn, a married couple, always greeted us by name and with a smile. There was always coffee, tea and bananas set out all the time as well, which was refreshing after a long day of sightseeing. The included breakfast had a good selection as well. The rooms were nice and spacious, so we slept well. The location was close to the main tourist attractions but not right in the center of the hubbub.The only downside in our opinion was that the bathroom was a bit strange, because the shower drain was in a tub, and the shower curtain didn’t really surround the tub, so it was easy to get water all over the floor where it wouldn’t drain.

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

What We Did

Sightseeing in Hanoi was refreshing just because we finally had relief from the heat! It was a little overcast with occasional light rain, but after weeks of sweltering temperatures we didn’t mind too much.

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple – This lake in the center of town is pleasant to walk around and a hub of many of the city’s activities. Our hotel was just a block away so we walked by almost every day. There is a legend associated with the lake which states that the Emperor Le Thai To returned a magical sword to a giant turtle that lives in the lake, giving it its name (the English translation is “Lake of the Returned Sword”). A red bridge goes out to the temple on an island in the lake, which contains a stuffed carcass of one of the turtles that still live in the lake. In the mornings you can find local residents doing all sorts of aerobic activities.

Old Quarter – We spent a day just wandering through the maze of narrow streets in the Old Quarter. This is the historic commercial area of the city, and is still buzzing with all sorts of commerce. Interestingly, many of the streets are named after the type of item that was traditionally sold on the street, and in many cases is still sold there today. We especially enjoyed Bamboo Ladder Street and Votive Paper Street. There was also a historic merchant’s home that we visited to get a sense of how the buildings used to look.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum – We had read in advance that the mausoleum housing the preserved body of the national hero Ho Chi Minh (the leader of Vietnamese Communist revolution and first President after independence – their version of George Washington) had limited visiting hours, so we made sure to head over on a morning that it was open. It was more than a quick walk away, and we thought we would save money and hassle by just taking a local bus that Google Maps said would drop us off right in front. But, as we followed the progress of the bus, it took one turn that took it away from the mausoleum, then kept going in that direction. After we passed a giant intersection, we figured we had to get off before we got even further away. We then walked a little bit to get back through the giant intersection and back towards the complex. We hailed a cab, nervous that we would get scammed, but it turned out to be a quick and cheap ride. We never quite figured out why we were on the wrong bus.  We saw the same bus (with the same bus number) later that day near the mausoleum…

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

The guidebook had warned that the mausoleum was popular, so we weren’t surprised to see a large line going into it. We headed around the side of the complex to find the entry point to the amusement park-style line corrals, and kept going… and going… The line had spilled out of a security checkpoint and across the street. We figured that it would take hours to get through the line, and the mausoleum closed in two hours anyway, so we decided that we would not be able to visit after all.

Instead, we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is in the same complex. It told the story of Ho Chi Minh from childhood through the revolution, but also had some random modern art interpretations of the ideas underlying the Communist revolution, so the overall experience was a little confusing, but quite interesting.

Also in the same complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, which as its name implies, is a temple on top of one pillar, built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong. After a brief visit there, we walked to the mausoleum, which was closed for the day. We did get to see a changing of the guards, which was interesting to contrast with the one in Athens. We walked past the current Presidential Palace and tried to make our way to Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, but ended up lost in a neighborhood and had to give up.

Imperial Citadel – The complex served as the center of the Vietnamese Empire’s military when the capital was in Hue. Much of it has been lost to the ages (and destroyed by the French), and there are still many archaeological excavations uncovering the site. Some bunkers were also built here during the modern war as command centers for the Northern Vietnam army, and were preserved as they were then. We weren’t expecting to spend much time here, but there turned out to be quite a few things to see so we spent almost a whole afternoon. We also enjoyed the extensive bonsai collection as well as high school graduates posing for pictures in traditional outfits.

Temple of Literature – There were also plenty of graduates posing for pictures in the scenic pavilions and courtyards that make up this temple. Fitting, because it was established in 1070 to honor scholars, and dedicated to Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. It also served as a university, and you can still see stelae that list those who received doctoral degrees.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum – The small sliver that remains of an old prison built by the French has now been turned into a museum describing its former use. The majority of the exhibits were dedicated to its use by the French to hold and execute Vietnamese political prisoners. There were two small rooms describing its role as a jail for American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war (when they gave it the nickname the “Hanoi Hilton”). The most famous resident was probably John McCain.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum – This modern museum describes the role of women in the culture and history of Vietnam. Special attention was paid to women during the Vietnam War, where they were involved both on the home front as well as on the front lines. The cultural aspects felt a lot like many of the other ethnographic museums we had visited, in that it described the various traditions and clothing (involving women) of the many ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.

Water Puppet Show – We took in one of the performances of this unique art form that started in the rice paddies of North Vietnam. This puppet show uses water as the stage for many small vignettes using different puppets, accompanied by a small traditional orchestra. We were fascinated the whole time by the spectacle.

54 Traditions Gallery – Wayne and Peggy know one of the founders of this neat collection of artifacts from the different cultures found in Vietnam (the name comes from the fact that there are 54 different cultures!). Their friend Mark gave us a nice tour of their collection, where we feel like we barely scratched the surface of all of the interesting stories associated with the items. Wayne and Peggy purchased a nice artifact that was once part of an altar in a temple.

Street Hair Cut – Wayne needed a trim, so he went just down the street from the hotel to a barber set up on the street. He got a nice cut for a very good price, and a good story to tell!

Zumba Class – See the separate post.

Where We Ate

Hanoi is known as one of the best places to get some Vietnamese street food, and we didn’t delay testing this out. We had our first lunch at a little place right outside the hotel. Most places just set up little plastic tables and chairs – think what you would use at a kid’s tea party. We crouched down into these chairs and ordered their main dish, bun cha, which is sweetly-marinated grilled pork served with a broth over vermicelli noodles. We also had Hanoi-style spring rolls, meaning they are fried (we decided we preferred the fresh ones to fried).

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Hanoi also has plenty of small sit-down restaurants in the area of the Old Quarter, and we visited a few. The first night we went to Minh Thuy’s in the main backpacker area. Eric and Peggy got the specialty called  xoi xeo, which was a yellow sticky rice.

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On the night of the water puppet show, we needed a place to eat quickly, so Tony at the hotel recommended New Day, which turned out to be a great call. We were worried that there was no seating, but they found a place to squeeze us in. For food, we were able to select a bunch of premade dishes from cafeteria-style trays and get them brought to our table promptly. It was all very tasty, so much so that we went back on our last night in town (but that time ordered from a menu).

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The night after the Zumba class, we wanted something simple and close, so we headed to a small place just around the corner from the hotel called Bahn Xeo Zon. As the name suggests, their specialty is bahn xeo, the Vietnamese savory pancake. Their version was probably the best one we had in Vietnam. Eric got a crab-flavored noodle soup called bun rieu cua.

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

We also splurged one evening and got some gelato from a fancy place on the same block as the hotel. It was a little overpriced but the service and presentation were excellent.

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Final Thoughts

Hanoi greatly exceeded our expectations! We found the city’s ancient and recent history enlightening to explore, and the food was all very good and cheap. We didn’t find that people treated us poorly; the service was at the same high level that received throughout Vietnam. The weather was a little gloomy, but never kept us from doing what we wanted. Even with our jam-packed three days, there are plenty of things we feel like we missed out on. Hopefully we can figure out how to fit Hanoi back into future travels.

Zumba Round the World: Hanoi

It had been ages since we had been to a real Zumba class! We visited one in Dallas when we were home for the holidays, but not since then. We’d had a chance to experience a few other aerobics classes in Phnom Penh, Sukhothai, and Bangkok, but we were itching for another real Zumba class experience.

When we arrived in Hanoi and searched the Zumba website, we knew we might be in luck. However, the class we actually went to was found just as we were walking around the city. There was a gym called XFitness only a few blocks from our hotel and it had a sign for Zumba in the window!

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We found out that we could buy a day pass for 110,000 dong (around $5.00), which is quite expensive for Vietnam standards but not too bad for a Zumba class by US standards. The gym was fancy with luxurious locker rooms and even a sauna, so we decided to come for a 6:20 class on the following day.

We were quite exhausted after a long day on our feet sightseeing in Hanoi so were feeling a little lazy about getting to the class. But, like most things, we knew we would be glad once we were there, so we pushed ourselves out the door, through the rainy weather, up the elevator to the 7th floor for XFitness, and into the class.

The class was excellent! It was very high energy and included a lot of reggaeton and popular music. There were actually two instructors. We never really could figure out who was the main instructor and who was learning… or maybe this class just normally has 2! They were both young women with great moves and a lot of energy.

We both had to work hard to keep up with the class, but Eric was pleased that he was not the only guy there! We think we were a bit of a novelty in the class, which is strange because Hanoi seemed to be a very cosmopolitan city. But most people seemed quite surprised to see us there and weren’t sure what to make of it.

We thanked one of the instructors afterwards, but she didn’t seem to speak too much English. Another woman told us that it was a new job for that instructor, so we congratulated her on a job well done and headed out to clean up in the locker rooms. (We didn’t make use of the sauna though!)

Overall, we had a great time and were quite excited to finally get into another Zumba class!

Using Points to Fly Cheaply Around Asia

In the past we’ve tried to use our frequent flyer points for as many flights as possible, but within Asia we have actually struggled to find ways to fly for free. The points we have just didn’t help for flying to the places that we would have liked to go. But recently we’ve been able to figure a few out!

Phong Nha to Hanoi for $6.58

This one was a last-minute decision. To get from the caves of Phong Nha to Hanoi in northern Vietnam was not as easy as we had originally anticipated. We thought that there would be multiple transport options, but as it turned out, the only bus from the village was a night bus, and the train (from the closest city of Dong Hoi) would take 11 hours and either involve an overnight stretch or take an entire day. All sounded like grueling options.

We were really struggling to choose the best of these limited options, and then we thought outside of the box. Using the wikipedia page for Hanoi’s airport (a top tip for figuring out what you can do), we saw that there was a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. We ran an award flight search on Air France, and saw that we could use their Flying Blue miles to fly on this flight (since Air France and Vietnam Airlines are partners) – for $3.29 in fees plus 10,000 Flying Blue miles per person.

Even with a private transfer to Dong Hoi airport, this worked out as cheaper than the train (which we had been leaning towards) and got us there significantly earlier. To get the Air France Flying Blue miles, we were able to transfer our existing points from American Express Membership Rewards that we had gotten as a signup bonus for a couple of different American Express cards.

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On a propeller plane!

 

Hanoi to Hong Kong for $64

With Vietnam Airlines being a Sky Team alliance partner with Air France, our flights within and from Vietnam were prime targets to use the Flying Blue miles on. We were also able to snag a ticket to Hong Kong on a Vietnam Airlines flight using the Flying Blue miles as well. We got the necessary 10,000 Flying Blue miles each by transferring some more of our American Express Membership Rewards points. The fees were $31.90 per person.

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Hong Kong to Kathmandu for $79

Hong Kong’s airport is the hub for two major airlines that are a part of the oneworld alliance, so we figured that using points for one of those alliance partners would work well for our flights to or from there. We were able to use this to our advantage to get a flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu in Nepal.

We found a reward flight on the Hong Kong-based airline Dragonair that we were able to book using our British Airways Avios points. We were able to get the required number of Avios by combining some Avios we had left over from signing up for the British Airways credit card with even more of our American Express Membership Rewards points that we could transfer in. The final cost was 10,000 Avios and $39.47 in fees per person.

Airline Alliances and Transfer Partners

These three examples just go to show how flexible you have to be when booking an award flight. Knowing which airlines partner with other airlines through alliances is huge – we greatly benefited from Vietnam Airlines being in an alliance with Air France and Dragonair with British Airways. Here’s a good infographic explaining the different alliances.

Having points in a program that can be transferred to multiple partners is also a great benefit. We didn’t have to earn Air France miles or British Airways Avios directly; instead, we could just use our American Express points for both. For more information on transferable points, check out this resource.

We have a few more award flights lined up that we are excited to share with you soon!

Fantastic Caves in Phong Na, Vietnam

We had read a couple articles informing us that not so long ago, people had discovered one of the biggest caves in the world in Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam. While we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford the $3000 fee to explore that cave, it did start us looking into the region. We discovered that it was a beautiful place full of large and interesting caves. We’ve had quite a few fun adventures in caves, so we were sold! We left Wayne and Peggy in Hue with plans to meet them again in Hanoi.

Getting There

Many people just do day trips to the caves, but we thought it was a bit too far for a comfortable day trip, plus we thought the area had enough to do to warrant an overnight stay.  We purchased a tourist minibus straight from Hue to the town near Phong Nha. The minibus was just fine, quite comfortable. It wasn’t even full, which feels like a rarity.

We stopped for our bathroom break at an interesting place that we had never heard of. It was a local Catholic church called Our Lady of La Vang that has a neat origin story involving the Virgin Mary appearing to settlers in that region. It was heavily damaged – we assumed from the war with America. However, they had rebuilt a new building for the church attached to the old steeple. In addition, there is a huge statue of Mary nearby. It also appeared that you could purchase large bottles of holy water to take away with you. We didn’t, but a Vietnamese family on our bus did!

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the main hostel in town, the Easy Tiger. It was fine, but was a large hostel with only dorm rooms. We never enjoy staying in dorm rooms – although as far as dorms go, these weren’t too bad: comfortable beds with only 4 to a room.

We had been hoping to stay at a place that we had read about called the Phong Nha Farmstay which was a lovely guesthouse out in the country, but unfortunately they were full. The book also made it sound like the town was super small with not a lot of services, so we jumped on booking the Easy Tiger as soon as we could. When we arrived though, we saw that the town was actually booming and there would have been plenty of other places to stay. Probably where we could have gotten a private room for even cheaper than what we paid for the dorm. So, next time we’ll know!

The Easy Tiger did have free breakfast and a large common area/restaurant which was nice. This did cause us to end up being more social and meeting more other travelers than we had done in a while!

What We Did

The Easy Tiger also provided some of the more interesting tours of the region. There were lots offered and we spent a significant part of our first day making decisions relating to the tours (and how we were actually going to leave Phong Nha and get to Hanoi… but that is a different story!) After agonizing for what seemed like hours, we picked the cheapest tour which also took us to the most amount of caves.

We started the tour at 8:45 the following morning. We were picked up by minibus and whisked off into the national park. The park is absolutely gorgeous. The mountains are covered in brilliant green jungle. We were also excited because for the first time in ages, it wasn’t glaringly hot. Still humid, but a much more comfortable temperature.

We enjoyed some of the stops along the way where our guides explained more about the formation of the park (large limestone karsts) and more about what happened in this area during the American War. It was heavily bombed as the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through. For those who don’t know, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a path that the North Vietnamese used to supply their fighters in the South during the war. The trail was over 2000 km long and made its way through Laos and Cambodia before arriving in South Vietnam. The US bombed the trail constantly so it was a huge amount of work for the North Vietnamese Army and volunteers to continually rebuild it.

We learned that many of the volunteers working on this section of road were young – in their 20s – and many of them died doing this work. Our first main stop was called the 8 Lady Cave. It currently houses a temple to remember 8 youths who died here. They climbed into the cave for shelter during US bombing, but then the entrance caved in. Apparently they lived in the cave for 9 days before they died.

Our next stop was significantly less solemn. We headed to Paradise Cave which used to have the title of the longest cave in Asia. There is currently 1 km open to the general public. The cave was lovely with large formations – both stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps the most distinctive thing we saw though was some sort of Asian music star filming a music video in the cave!

After a delicious, large lunch, the group headed to the next stop which was called the Dark Cave. This part of the day involved many steps. First we had to find working life jackets and headlamps. We say “had to find” because it was a bit difficult. Most of the life vests did not have working buckles to hold them on. Eric found one of the few that had three working ones while Della’s had only 1 and a half. Della ended up having to trade with the guide to get a working head lamp…

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After we “geared up” we headed to a zipline! Della was a little unsure given the quality of the other gear, but the zipline seemed to be in much better condition than the life vests. We took a long zip across the river with no problems. Once on the other side, we slipped into the water for a quick swim to the cave entrance. We flipped on our headlamps and entered the Dark Cave.

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The walk was a bit difficult as we were in bare feet having to climb over sharp limestone formations. However, after a short time it got a bit better as we started to walk in mud. Then the mud got deeper, over our feet, up to our ankles, up to our knees!

Before we knew it we were walking in mud waist deep! After a final climb over a rock and slip and slide, we were actually swimming in the mud! Now this was something we had never experienced before. It was heavy, making it a bit harder to move than you’re used to. But at the same time, it made you feel incredibly light because you could literally float on top of it as soon as you picked up your feet. Once the whole group was in the mud pool, our guide instructed us to turn off our lights. It’s hard to describe exactly what this felt like. In the pitch black, with the mud messing with our sense of gravity, we imagine it felt like we were floating in outer space. It was truly a unique and wonderful experience… too bad we have no pictures of it to share! You’ll just have to go and do it for yourself.

After our mud swim, we came back into the main section of the cave and rinsed ourselves in the stream running through. We then took an enjoyable swim through the cave in the dark. Finally, we headed back out where we jumped on to kayaks to bring us back across the river. But our day was not done! We all had one last chance to do a quick zip line out to drop into the river. It was an exhilarating way to end an excellent day.

The river we ziplined over twice and the kayaks we used to cross once

The river we ziplined over twice and the kayaks we used to cross once

What We Ate

Nothing we ate in Phong Nha was exciting. Our first night we found a small restaurant where we had uninspiring soup and rice. The second evening, we ate with some of our new friends from the tour at the hostel. We had pizza for the first time in months. It was OK…

Final Thoughts

We only stayed in Phong Nha for 2 nights, but it is a place that deserves a lot longer than that. The area is absolutely stunning and we wish we could have spent more time exploring it. The cave tour we did was pricy, but great. There are also several other cave tours offered that we wish we could have tried. Perhaps we’ll have to come back here in the future!

Colorful Hues of Hue, Vietnam

After the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City and the touristy but lovely lanterns of Hoi An, we headed to the ancient city of Hue (actually pronounced like “Hway”- which does indeed negate our title rhyme). This was another UNESCO site that we had been itching to visit. The city is located on the Perfume River and was the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen emperors from 1802 to 1885.

Getting There

We had read that the coast from Hoi An up to Hue was one of the prettiest trains rides in all of Vietnam. We couldn’t pass that up and booked the trip. It was indeed lovely! We were expecting a 4 hour ride but arrived in only 2 (we must have misread some information) so we were quite surprised when we pulled into the station. A quick taxi ride and we were at our hotel.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Sunny Hotel. We quite enjoyed this hotel – it had really friendly and helpful staff and a wonderful view from our room. However, the view came because we were on the 5th floor… and there was no lift! Definitely got a bit of exercise during our stay. The room was comfortable but there was a small downside. We discovered little parades of ants wandering our wall and had a visit from a cockroach our first evening. However, once that was resolved, we were quite comfortable. We also enjoyed the location which was on a small alley/street with many options for eating.

What We Did

We only had two full days in Hue, so did our best to make the most of them… despite the sweltering unseasonable heat. We arrived early our first day, so Peggy and Wayne went out to explore the river and a pagoda. However, Della was feeling quite sick having caught a bad chest cold. She decided to relax in the room for the afternoon and Eric opted to join her, hoping to catch up a bit with the blog.

The next day, however, we set out for a full sightseeing experience. We headed to the Imperial Citadel which was a short walk from our hotel. We enjoyed the foot crossing of the bridge over the large Perfume River on our way.

We then headed over the moat and first through the 6m high walls of the Citadel. Within the Citadel is another set of walls and the impressive Ngo Mon Gateway into the Imperial Enclosure, where all of the main activities took place. From there we explored the large site which had been largely destroyed during the French and American wars. However, there is a lot of ongoing restoration work.

We explored the Thai Hoa Palace which was used for official receptions and important ceremonies before heading to the Hall of the Mandarins. “Mandarins” were any government official. We found it interesting to read that they were chosen by testing alone. They would go through schooling and official tests were set up every few years. As the mandarins passed each test, they would move to a higher level. The final test was given by the emperor himself and would determine whether a mandarin would work or not.

The Emperor’s Reading Room was small, but very lovely. We enjoyed the formal Royal Theater, where we were able to escape from the scorching sun for a few minutes. The Co Ha Gardens were lovely to stroll through.

The Forbidden Purple City was once reserved for the personal use  and residence of the emperor, but there is not much left now. Some of the the most beautiful parts of the entire enclosure were the Truong San Residence and the Dien Tho Residence for the wives and mothers of the emperor. It was here where we found a small coffee shop to relax and escape the heat for awhile.

Our final stop was the Thai To Miew Temple Complex which houses shrines to each of the emperors. We enjoyed learning a little bit about the personalities of each emperor. We were especially amused as one was described as working late into the night because he “was slow.” We interpreted that one way, but found out the next day that it really meant something more like cautious and deliberate with his work.

By this point, the heat had sapped almost all of our energy. Della especially, but also Wayne and Peggy, were still recovering from illness so we headed back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.

The next day, we rented bikes and headed outside the city of Hue. There are many extravagant tombs of Nguyen emperors dotting the countryside nearby. We decided, again because of the heat, to head to the closest tomb, the Tomb of Tu Duc, which was about 6 km outside of the city. We debated the idea of hiring a car to take us to more of the tombs (in air-conditioned comfort) but decided against as each tomb had a steep entrance fee and we weren’t sure we needed to see more than one.

The bike ride was slightly nerve-racking at first as we navigated our way through the busy, motorbike filled roads. But, we made it safely and breathed a huge sigh of relief as we passed into the countryside and once again found ourselves making our way through lovely, green rice paddies.

Emperor Tu Duc was the emperor we mentioned above as being “slow.” But learning more about him through visiting his tomb led us to change our interpretation of the term from the day before. He designed his tomb himself, for use before and after his death. He apparently lived a life of excess and spent lavishly. The construction of the tomb actually caused a coup plot, but it ultimately did not succeed. Near his planned tomb was the Stele Pavilion which houses a 20-ton stone drafted by the emperor himself. Apparently, on it, he freely admits his mistakes and is quite reflective about his life.

Apparently, despite everything that went into building the tomb, Tu Duc is not actually buried there. His real burial site is unknown; he and his wife ended up only using the site while they were living. There is a lake which holds a small island where Tu Duc did some of his hunting, a temple where the emperor and empress worshiped, a pavilion where Tu Duc wrote poetry and entertained his concubines, and even a theater. All of the buildings are mostly restored and quite lovely.

Again, drained by the heat, and not looking forward to the heart-pounding ride back to town, we took a different way back. This was slightly longer, but kept us farther away from the big city streets for longer and allowed us a meander along the river. This was a good choice and we enjoyed a quick snack in a park before arriving back to the hotel.

We also celebrated Easter in Hue. By celebrated, we mean that Della and Eric slept in a bit and Wayne and Peggy attempted to visit a church. However, the posted times of the services seemed to be wrong and they were only able to catch the last 10 minutes of the service.

The end of Easter mass

The end of Easter mass

What We Ate

The food in Hue is fit for a king! Or, rather, the traditional foods of Hue were some of the emperor’s Tu Duc’s favorites. We also enjoyed them. The first we tried were a kind of rice pancake, called Banh Khoai. They would serve it with rice paper wrappers and you would roll the pancake in with bean sprouts and other greenery. We also tried a smaller version which was a tiny bite sized pancake with a morsel of flavor called Banh Beo. Eric also made sure to try a soup we had first had in Saigon called Bun Bo Hue.

Two of our more memorable meals ended up with us taking away something that wasn’t food! We ate at a restaurant called Lac Thien after our day exploring the Imperial Citadel. We enjoyed both Banh Khoai and Banh Beo and beer, of course, because it was so hot. The staff was very sweet and particularly enjoyed showing us how to open our beer with a different kind of opener. We actually were familiar with them as they were used widely in Myanmar, but it was a lot of fun to see them again. The owner is deaf so we weren’t able to chat exactly, but he communicated so much energy, kindness, and delight it was lovely. He also signed one of the beer openers and gave it us to keep! The second restaurant was lunch after our long, hot bike ride to the Tomb of Tu Duc. We ate at the Mandarin Restaurant which was quite good. Here, the owner is a photographer, so we were surrounded by lovely images of Vietnam while we ate. When we left, the staff gifted us with two postcards with the owners photographs!

Our final dinner was eaten on the waterfront of the Perfume River. The whole area becomes quite lively after dark with street musicians and a large food market. We expected the restaurants there to be expensive, but we found one with quite reasonable prices. We enjoyed the cool breeze and the lovely lighting of the bridges over the river.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time in Hue. We found that it didn’t really feel as touristy as we were expecting. The evening on the river front was enjoyed mostly by locals, almost no foreigners at all. Through discussions with travelers after we left, we found that most tourists make Hue a day trip either on their way to or away from Hoi An. We were so glad that we stayed a few days and got to experience more that the city had to offer. The tourist sites were beautiful, marred only by the outrageous heat. Hue is worth a bit of time!

 

 

Saying Hello to Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a Savoring Saigon)

Our final stop on our tour of Southeast Asia is the country of Vietnam. There’s quite a bit to see in the long, skinny country. We had heard a variety of opinions from fellow travelers about the country: some loved it, but other disliked it and said they wouldn’t go back. We were excited to see where we would fall on this spectrum. Also, as Americans, we were interested to learn more about the war that affected our parents’ generation so deeply, and to see how we would be received in this country.

We chose to start from the south and work our way to the north in the hopes of finding cool weather. Our first stop was the most populous city and the base of US operations during the war, Ho Chi Minh City.

You may be confused, thinking that Saigon was where all the action occurred. Well, they are actually the same city! The name was officially changed once Southern Vietnam was liberated (or taken over, depending on your point of view) by Northern forces and the country was reunified. Many people in the city still informally refer to it as Saigon, so we found ourselves doing the same.

Getting There

We were coming from Ko Lanta, our beach destination in Thailand. We were able to find a flight from the Krabi Airport to Saigon (via Bangkok), which simplified things. Our trip away from Ko Lanta wasn’t nearly as frustrating as our trip there, but it still had its bad moments.

Booking a minivan transfer to the airport was way easier than figuring out how to get from the airport. Every travel agent in town offered the same service, with vans leaving once an hour. We were the first ones picked up and therefore had to spend almost an hour picking up other travelers. Once the van was stuffed, we headed towards Krabi. The lines for the ferries went quickly, and we made it in plenty of time to check in.

Our check-in was a little unique, since we were boarding a domestic flight to Bangkok but ultimately would be going to an international destination. Our airline, Air Asia, gave us special stickers to wear to show that we needed to be taken through extra steps. We were stamped out of Thailand in the Krabi airport, and ended up in a waiting area for international flights. When it was time to board our plane, an Air Asia rep found us and took us to the domestic terminal. What was funny was that our transport to there was a full-size bus… for just the two of us and the rep! And the bus only went about 100 yards.

The rest of our private coach to the gate

The rest of our private coach to the gate

In Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport, we again had a special escort that took us through a side door into a transfers area, where they checked our documentation, did another security scan, and then dumped us into the main international terminal. We didn’t have much baht (Thailand currency) left, so we had one last pad thai each, and then shared some fries from McDonalds (please don’t judge, there was no cheap local food available..).

Our plane was scheduled to take off at 7:30, then around 7:00 we saw lightning flash outside and it started pouring rain. We were excited to see the moisture falling from the sky after so many dry, dusty days, but we were worried about flight delays. Sure enough, a few minutes later, every gate in the area made announcements about delays. Ours ended up not boarding until almost 9:00. We could see large pools of standing water on the tarmac, but takeoff went smoothly.

In the Saigon airport, we had to wait to get our visas. We had used the Visa on Arrival service from Hotels in Vietnam, and all the paperwork they provided worked great. We did still have to wait about 30 minutes for the visas to be processed. At this point it was 11:30 or so.

We were very glad that we had pre-booked a driver to pick us up from the airport, because the few taxis in the ranks looked like the scammy ones we had read about online. Our driver was very relieved to see us. He didn’t speak very much English, but later we found out that he had been waiting since our original arrival time. We had emailed the hotel to let them know about the delay, but apparently the driver had heard that it was on time and didn’t trust them.

When we finally got to our hotel, the clerk roused himself from a nap, checked us in, and then we all headed to bed. Another long travel day in the books!

Where We Stayed

We booked a double room at Giang Son Hotel 2 in the middle of the backpacker area. Our room was a little small, but we really enjoyed the AC and bathroom after “roughing it” at our beach bungalow. The front desk staff seemed very competent and friendly. The included breakfast was good as well.

What We Did

We were especially excited to see the sights around Saigon because we had both recently read the book Saigon by Anthony Grey, a historical fiction novel which used many different real-life locations around the city.

HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) Museum – Our first day, still a little tired from the late night, we just decided to visit one museum. We headed to the city’s history museum hoping to get a good overview for what we would see on subsequent days. It is housed in an impressive colonial building that has seen a variety of uses from its construction in 1885: it has been the residence of the French colonial governor, offices for the South Vietnamese government, and now a museum. The ground floor houses a few exhibits on the history of the city and the culture of its residents, while the second floor is all dedicated to the revolution in Saigon, first against the French, then the South Vietnamese government (supported by the Americans). We also found a small door leading down to a bunker in the basement, which the leaders of one of the South Vietnamese governments had built to use to escape in case of a coup.

Saigon Old City Walk – We followed the self-guided walking tour route laid out in the Lonely Planet to see some of the sights of old Saigon. Some of the highlights were the bustling Ben Thanh market, the modern Bitexco Financial Tower, the Majestic Hotel by the riverfront, the large square with the Opera House and two other historic hotels, and the People’s Committee Buildings (which is weirdly next to a fancy shopping mall). The tour ended at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the main Post Office, where we made sure to meet each other at noon to test out a potential rendezvous plan.

Reunification Palace – On April 30, 1975, the Communist forces of the Vietnam Liberation Front crashed a tank through the gates of this complex, the home of the South Vietnamese government. The leaders inside surrendered, and the country was reunified. Interestingly, they have left the building almost exactly as it was at this moment, so it functions as somewhat of a time capsule for the era. There are a multitude of ornate reception rooms, the President’s residence, and on the upper floors a lounge, a movie theater, a helipad, and a dance floor. The basement is maybe the most fascinating part – here there was a giant bunker complex where you can still see the old radios and maps that were used by the South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong forces grew closer.

War Remnants Museum – This sobering and sometimes disturbing museum shows the effects of the “American War” on the countryside and people of Vietnam. It definitely portrayed the American actions in the war in a negative light, from the massacres of innocent civilians and the long-lasting effects of the deployment of Agent Orange. On the other hand, it did not describe any of the war crimes committed by the Viet Cong side, so it felt like we only heard part of the story.

Cu Chi Tunnels Tour – The Viet Cong were successful against the American forces in part because they engaged in guerrilla warfare. One key part of these tactics was a network of tunnels that they built which enabled them to launch sneak attacks and then disappear quickly. We took a half-day tour up to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where a section of these tunnels has been preserved. The tour took us past some exhibits on the wartime activities in the tunnels and examples of the booby traps that were also a part of the guerrilla strategy. The experience itself felt a bit rushed, but we did ultimately get to crouch-walk through about 20 meters of tunnels (which are only about 3 feet tall).

Explore Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown – This neighborhood in Saigon was originally founded as a separate settlement by Chinese immigrants and still maintains a heavy Chinese influence. We rode a city bus over and spent some time wondering its streets. Our first stop was the large Binh Tay Market. We were amazed by the size of this place; at one point we thought we were in the center, and then realized that we we still in one corner! We also visited two Taoist pagodas, where we got our first look at a type of religious structure that we hadn’t yet seen. Our final stop was at the Cha Tam Catholic Church, where South Vietnamese President Nguyen Dinh Diem and his brother hid during the coup against them.

Attend the HCMC Tourism Festival – We were excited to discover that a large festival was going on in the park just across the road from our accommodations. The purpose of the festival was to promote tourism in the region, and it was definitely aimed at the local population. Still, we enjoyed visiting the different booths, recognizing many of the places we were planning to visit soon. Also, on the first night we got to see a nice dance performance where each number portrayed a different one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam.

Survive the Traffic – Saigon has a reputation for crazy traffic, and it definitely lived up to this. Crossing larger roads was quite an adventure, especially in a few cases where there was no light. We were very grateful in two of these instances when a local person led the way for us and we were able to get across safely. Even the sidewalks are not safe – sometimes in cases of heavy traffic the motorbikes would drive along them!

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Where We Ate

We enjoy eating Vietnamese food back home in Denver, so we were pretty excited to get our first taste of the cuisine in the country itself. One of our favorite things to eat is the famous beef noodle soup called pho, and fittingly this was the first meal we enjoyed. We ate at a local chain and are very happy to report that it was quite good! We also ate at another local chain near our accommodations for dinner one evening.

Another good feature of the festival beyond the dance performance was that it had many food booths set up that allowed us to sample some different cuisine. One night we each got soups that were unlike anything we had had before (they had some random meat parts and herbs in them), and another night we had a more conventional soup and a vermicelli bowl. We were also excited to order draft beer here for just 50 cents a glass!

The day we went to the Cu Chi tunnels, our tour guide us talked into ordering a local special savory pancake called banh xeo. It was very tasting – a large pancake made with rice flour, and stuff with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

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We never really dipped our feet into the Saigon street food scene because it was just so hot outside, and we preferred the air-conditioned comfort of inside dining. Even with that restriction, we found two local restaurants with nice cool interiors where we were able to enjoy some local specialties.

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At most of these meals, we ordered an appetizer of fresh spring rolls, which was especially exciting for Della since they are one of her favorite things. We even were able to find some in a street stall outside the Bin Tayh Market – our one (delicious) exception to not eating street food!

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Final Thoughts

We were unsure about how much we would enjoy Saigon, but we actually quickly decided that we liked it! The city was vibrant but not overwhelming, the sites were easy to explore, and the cuisine was excellent. Saigon served as a great introduction to Vietnam and hopefully the first of many fun places to see there.