Friday, January 14, 2011

Central and Southern Vietnam

Our second tour of duty in Vietnam was spent primarily in the central and southern sections of the country. We started off in Hue after an overnight train ride from Hanoi where we spent four nights. Our next stop took us about 3 hours down the road by bus to the city of Hoi An where we spent 3 nights. The last stop was for four nights in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. I'll start my review with recapping Hue.

Hue is a city of about 300,000 in central Vietnam. It is primarily known for being the former seat of Vietnam kings before the last king abdicated in 1945. We arrived in Hue after taking an overnight train from Hanoi. The train ride wasn't bad and I slept pretty good but the quality of the train wasn't as good as the overnight trains we took in the north. One interesting thing that I noticed on a couple instrument panels were that the instruments were made in the USSR which means they were at least 20 years old. They were probably older than 20 years based on the way they looked.

Imperial Palace entrance in Hue

Hue was a nice city that had something different to offer than what we saw in the north. On our first day we explored the area south of the city where our hotel was just to orient ourselves to the city. Unfortunately, it was the only day that it did not rain. We spent our second day walking around the Imperial Palace and the Citadel area. The Citadel is an older area of Hue that is surrounded by a 10 km long wall where the bulk of the city's inhabitants live. Within the Citadel is the Imperial Palace. We first toured the Palace. The Palace has been heavily damaged over years including the Vietnam War. There were over 120 buildings with only about 20 that have been restored. Some of the buildings they count at being restored weren't in all that great of shape. It was still worth the visit. After the Palace we walked through some side streets within Citadel before hiking up top one of the gates to get a better view of the city. We then started to walk back to our hotel. After a stop for lunch it started to rain and we got completely soaked. Good news was that we our rain pants and jackets which helped but only so much. Due to the on and off rain we decided to go on a day tour to visit some of the other sites of the city. We had planned to rent bicycles and bike to each site. It only cost $1 or $2 a day per person to rent bikes. The tour was $10 which included transportation on a decent bus plus it included a buffet lunch. Good thing we signed up for it since it rained most of the day we took the tour. We did get to see a 400 year old pagoda and the tombs of two of the kings. The tombs are large structures that take a hour to visit a piece and were impressive for the most part.

Thien Mu Pagoda - built in 1601 AD & the tallest in Vietnam

We did enjoy our hotel in Hue. The staff and owner were really nice especially considering that I broke a glass window in our hotel room. I was trying to open a window in our room for ventilation after Alethea had washed our Teva sandals. The window popped off the track and fell into the hallway shattering the glass. I notified the hotel desk and we ended up having to switch rooms since they couldn't repair the window immediately. Even after I broke the window the staff of the hotel invited us to eat lunch with them which we did. The owner of the hotel joined us. The owner lives in Hanoi and comes down to visit his hotel every so often. He couldn't speak English but the women who worked at the hotel translated for us. He also likes to drink some local homemade rice liquor. He poured Alethea and I glassed and we took several shots over lunch. We also ate dinner again that evening with the hotel staff and the owner along with another older gentleman. Dinner was pretty good and we managed to finish off two more bottles of rice liquor between the four of us. The owner actually took a break at one point and came back downstairs in his pajamas. It was pretty funny. We were invited to dinner again the next night but passed since we were out all day in the rain and were worn out from all the rice liquor meals.

The next stop central in Vietnam was the city of Hoi An. We traveled to Hoi An by booking a bus at our hotel in Hue for $5 per person. It was a decent but somewhat cramped bus but it was only a 3 hour drive. Hoi An is a small town of around 100,000 that has mostly been preserved to look at is it did 1 to 2 centuries ago. Hoi An has a long history of commerce. It was a key trading port starting back in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Chinese and Japanese traded here for hundreds of years. Later on Spanish and Portuguese missionaries set up shop followed by the French. The city was spared during the Vietnam War with the US.

Phuc Kien Assembly Hall - Hoi An

I really liked Hoi An. The buildings in the old town area have either been preserved or restored to look as they did in the 18th or 19th century. They also ban cars, mopeds, and even bicycles from the central part of the old town area which makes it a good town to walk around in. There are several old houses, temples, and assembly halls to visit. To visit them you purchase a book of 5 tickets and you have one ticket taken at each of the structures that participate. Some temples are free and some houses do not participate and charge a separate fee. We spent quite a bit of time walking around Hoi An. One of the best things about Hoi An is the quality of the restaurants. We ate some really nice meals at Ly Cafe 22, Lighthouse, and at an Indian restaurant called Ganesh. I don't think any of the meals cost more than $15 for two people including drinks. We also took advantage of the inexpensive prices and both got massages one afternoon. I really enjoyed mine. It was called a Vietnamese Traditional Massage. My masseuse used a couple types of oils including one that was hot and felt like having tiger balm all over my body. After our massages we relaxed further by stopping to have some 15 cent draft beers at a bar on the way back to our hotel. It was a tough day :-). Only negative about Hoi An was that the weather in Hue followed us meaning that it rained quite a bit. It rained each day we were there but not as much on the last day.

petting a puppy at a bar of all places in Hoi An

The final stop on our Vietnam tour was the city of Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. Saigon as I will call it is a modern (by Vietnam standards) city that is compact, crowded, with literary millions of mopeds. It was definitely a contrast to Hanoi which has a similar population. In Hanoi the weather was cooler and it seemed a little more laid back and not as hectic as Saigon. Most of our activities included visiting museums, a pagoda, and a large market. Probably the most interesting museum was the War Remnants Museum. This museum focuses on the Vietnam War and had multiple exhibits demonstrating what the US did to the Vietnamese population through bombings and the use of chemicals such as the infamous agent orange. I've read all about it before but it was kind of sobering to view photos of all the carnage. I had a little trouble with some of the captions indicating that it was the US Army's policy to kill women and children which obviously wasn't true. The museum also didn't mention a lot of the atrocities committed by the North against their own citizens. Other museums that we visited were the former Presidential Palace now called the Reunification Palace where the leader of South Vietnam resided and the Vietnamese History Museum. Neither of these two museum were all that spectacular. I thought the Reunification Palace was OK since that is the place where a tank crashed the gates forcing the leader of South Vietnam to surrender which essentially ended the Vietnam War even though US troops had already left by then. We were able to go to the Thailand consulate in Saigon and get a free 60 day tourist visa which gives us more options and saves us $35 when we cross into Thailand. If you cross by bus you only get a 15 day exemption stamp but no visa and if you fly you can get an exemption stamp good for 30 days with both costing $35. We plan on staying for 31 days and would like to cross over land from Cambodia which will probably only cost us $30 versus flying which would cost $300 from Siem Reap.

Presidential or Reunification Palace in Saigon

This concludes our time in Vietnam. Like the north I really enjoyed our time in the central and southern sections. The town of Hoi An was my favorite with Hue being second and Saigon coming in third. Quite honestly I'd probably skip Saigon or only spend two days there. Hoi An was my favorite because it was small and easily walkable due to its size. The food there was probably the best in Vietnam too. There were probably only two types of things we didn't do. One item was visit the DMZ just north of Hue. I had read that it wasn't all that spectacular to look at and many former battle fields were overgrown and not much to see. The other thing we didn't do was visit any of the beach towns such as Nha Trang. We decided to skip the beach towns since we plan on spending 1-2 weeks on a beach in Thailand somewhere.

Vietnam overall was a pleasant surprise for me. We spent 22 nights in Vietnam all together which ties it with Australia as the country we have spent the most time in on our journey around the world. Originally we had only planned on spending probably 5 days here and all of that would have been in the Haio area. I am glad we quickly decided to extend our time here. The people that we encountered were very nice and helpful. It is easy to get around and the language barrier is not all that difficult. I really didn't know what to expect considering the history of the US with Vietnam. I definitely think that since a generation has passed since the war the country has moved on and doesn't really seem to care that much about what happened 40 years ago. I cannot really think of too many negatives. You still see some poverty stricken areas like you do in China and other parts of Asia but the people pretty much seem positive and happy to be alive versus in China where people were very serious and didn't pay attention to you. In Vietnam you can smile and say hello to people and they respond. In China they wouldn't even acknowledge you. One slight negative is that they do have internet censorship in Vietnam with it being virtually a one party communist state. We lost access to Facebook after visiting Hue. There is a big 5 year planning government meeting coming up and as they got closer they started to block Facebook. I didn't mind not being able to access Facebook especially since I like Twitter better but it is a reminder that the government is in charge and the Vietnamese people are not free. In summary, I'd recommend Vietnam more so than China which actually doesn't say too much. There is quite a variety of scenery and things to do. It's also a place to visit if you aren't too much of a world traveler or if haven't even been to Asia.

Next stop for us is Cambodia. Our current plan is to stay in the city of Siem Reap for 7 nights and visit the Angkor Wat complex of temples. We then head for Thailand for approximately a month before visiting the mother of all challenges.....India. Take care everyone!

Links to photo albums:

Daily Log

Tuesday January 2rd
Arrived in Hanoi back with no issue. Plant in Vientiane was about 30 minutes late leaving but we made up for it and landed 15 minutes later than scheduled.
Made it through Vietnamese immigration with no problems.
Rode into town with Danish couple we took a taxi into Vientiane with 4 days prior.
Boarded train around 6 pm.
Train left right on time @ 7 pm.
Chatted with two women traveling through Vietnam form Melbourne, Australia.
Ate a bowl of noodles and a beer for dinner.
Read my book on Buddhism until about 11 pm before falling asleep.

Wednesday January 3rd
Woke up around 7 am. Slept pretty good considering it was on a train in not to clean of an environment.
Greeter from hotel met us at train station. Took 10 minute taxi ride to hotel and checked in.
Ate breakfast
Came back to room and read Lonely Planet .pdf chapters on Hue in order to map our itinerary here.
Walked around our side of the river
Stopped and bought some food smell stuff
Walked around large department store called the Big C – bought mouth wash and two beers for under $3.
Ate Pho with beef and two large beers for less than $5.
Walked back to hotel.
Fixed computer network access issue on Alethea's computer
Dinner at local restaurant L'abergine. Had set menu. Pretty good

Thursday January 4th
Woke up @ 7 am. Slept so so
Breakfast at 7:30 am
Left hotel to walk to Imperial Palace @ 8:45 am. Took 45 minute to walk to it.
Stayed in Imperial Palace for a little over a hour. It was OK It has 140 some building only 20 or so have been restored much is in ruins.
Walked around the town for about a hour outside the palace. Walked up one of the gate entrances to get a better view of the city.
Walked back along the inside of the wall.
Exit the Citadel. Stopped by a corner restaurant to eat lunch. Waiter told us immediately it was a Amway salesman. One person tried to get us to buy pictures another made two attempts to get us to go riding on his motorbike to tour the pagodas and tombs. It started to rain so we had two beers.
Walked back in the rain. Stopped briefly at bookstore then grocery store. Got some beer, cheese, and nuts.
Walked back to hotel in rain. Immediately took showers once we got back. Back in by 3 pm
Took naps since we haven't been sleeping well recently.
Walked a few blocks down to Missy Rue's for dinner. Had bacon wrapped shrimp along with a chicken dish. Our total bill for 4 dishes 2 beer and a large water was $11.72.

Wednesday January 5th
Woke up at 8 am with alarm. Slept pretty good
Had pancakes for breakfast. Not bad
Came back to room to clean up.
Alethea washed Teva's thoroughly since they smelled and then put lavender oil we purchased on them to help with the smell.
I was trying to open a window to help with ventilation to help dry the shoes when the window popped off the track and fell breaking the glass. Told the hotel staff. We had to change rooms. Moved down to 2nd floor.
Discussed tours with hotel staff and booked tomb and pagoda tour for the next day.
Invited to lunch by hotel staff. Ate lunch with 4 workers plus owner of hotel. Had rice, pork, fish, eggs. Owner poured multiple shots of local homemade rice wine. We toasted by saying cheers and also something in Vietnamese which meant 100% meaning you drank your whole shot glass worth of wine. The owner then said I looked like David Beckam.
We had our picture taken with the owner of the hotel.
Then had tea with the owner. He then left.
He invited us to dinner @ 7 pm.
Came back to room and took a nap.
Walked to market across river. Bought pineapple, peanuts, and then went to super market to buy some chocolate.

Thursday January 6th
Took day long tour of Hue. Normally we don't do tours but there was a good chance of rain plus it wasn't that expensive. Tour only cost $10 and included lunch. Tour was OK except we were rushed at times plus we skipped one of the tombs. We had to pay entrance fees which were only $2.50 per person at three of the kings tombs. We visited Thien Mu Pagoda which was built in the early 1600's along with Minh Mang and Khai Dinh. We rode back on a boat down the Perfume River but it was raining. We also had to walk back to our hotel.
Ate dinner @ L'abergine where we ate the 1st night. I had the mixed garlic vegetables and squid stuffed with pork.
Came back to hotel and paid the bill.
Took showers and got on the internet.

Friday January 7th
Took bus from Hue to Hanoi – started to wait at 8 am, picked up @ 8:45. xfer to larger bus which didn't have much rooms between seats and not toilet as advertised but we did stop for 30 minutes. Arrived @ 12:30 pm. Hotel was supposed to have someone waiting for us but instead we had to call them.
Checked into hotel and ate lunch.
Walked around Hoi An for a couple hours. Nice small city with old building. They have no cars and moped zone downtown.
Visited bookstores. Tried to bargain with some over price couldn't agree. Will go to others tomorrow.
Stopped & had local homemade beer for 3000 VND per 12 oz glass.
Came back to hotel to research dining options
Walked 15 minutes to Ly Cafeteria 22. Very good, local, organic fresh ingredients.
Walked down to cooking school. Alethea signed up for a Sunday class. I skipped since it may be a little more advanced for me.
Walked back to hotel. Did visit Japanese bridge.

Saturday January 8th
Purchased a set of ticket that allowed entry to old houses, museums, and assembly halls in the old town section of Hoi An. Went to a cultural show @ 10:15 that lasted 30 minutes.
List places we visited – (Quan Cong Temple, Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, Hoi An Handicraft Workshop)
Went to Randy's Bookstore on Cam Nam island but didn't find anything.
Went to bar down the street and had one beer. Funny thing is that they brought us a shot of rum each even though we didn't ask for it.
Ate lunch @ Lighthouse which is the #1 rated Trip Advisor restaurant. Pretty good. I had sweet & sour chicken. Alethea had beef steak and fries. Her's was better.
Walked back in to town to our the one hall.
Went to bookstore and traded on book for a book about Vietnam plus 50 K.
Went to 2nd bookstore and we each bought two books for 180 K VND
Walked back to hotel
Decided to eat dinner at hotel since we had a big lunch and the food at our hotel is pretty good with good priced too.

Sunday January 9th
Alethea went to cooking class from 8:30to 1:pm
Called home @ 9 am for about 30 minutes
Re-organized my twitter account
Researched trip stuff
Got massage @ 3 pm – pretty good, better than Laos massage, used oils including a hot balm type oil
Drank .15 cent beers @ Lame Cafe afterward
Ate dinner @ Ganesh Indian food restaurant – good

Monday January 10th
Ate breakfast around 8 am
Checked out of hotel @ 10 am
Took taxi 27 km to Da Nang airport – took 45 minutes or so
Flew from Danang to Saigon – flight took a little over a hour and left about 30 minutes. No flight in SE Asia has left on time. Not a big deal as we don't have a certain time to be anywhere
Had to wait a little bit to get a taxi from the company our hotel recommend. They recommended only two companies since they are supposed to be more honest. Traffic was pretty think on way to hotel. Took a little over 30 minutes.
Checked right in to our hotel which is the Mini Saigon Sports 5 hotel which I booked online.
Walked around the block looking for a cheap restaurant to east dinner. Prices are a little more since we are in a big city and staying in the middle of tourist zone. We did find a cheap place down the street.
Came back to hotel to shower and rest. Power went out while taking shower.

Tuesday January 11th
Got up @ 7 am to eat breakfast.
Left hotel around 8:30 to walk to Thailand Embassy to get a tourist visa
Arrived at Thai embassy around 9:20. At embassy for about 20 minutes filling out forms. Told to pick up our passports at 3 pm tomorrow.
Visited War Remembrance Museum. Had a lot of US plane and tanks. Several exhibits including video of people who were injured or born with birth defects from Agent Orange. Very sad. The exhibits were one sided and said the US deliberately attacked women and children. Not true.
Walked over to Notre Dame Cathedral but it was closed from 10 am to 3 pm.
Walked over to Post Office. Neat building from outside. Nothing much on inside
After lunch we visited the Presidential Palace or Reunification Palace. Took 1 hour tour. Pretty neat. Living quarters for the President were sparse.
Walked back to hotel.
Stopped and drank beers and ate spring rolls for a couple hours. We people or moped watched at street corner. Funny story – tried to use bathroom at bar but the bathroom also has a shower in it and someone was taking a shower preventing me from using the bathroom. I've never had that problem in the US.
Ate dinner @ a Texas BBQ place. We splurge. Total for 2 people was $20 USD including 3 beers. Ran into Carl from Germany who we hiked with in Sapa. Hopefully we'll run into him again.

Wednesday January 12th
Slept in until 9 am. Ate breakfast & was done by 10 am
Dropped laundry off at place down the street. Weighed 4.5 kg between the both of us
Spent 3 hours researching Thailand options
Left hotel around 1:30 pm ish to walk to Thai Consulate
Arrived at Thai consulate and picked up visa. I'm relieved we did this since if we crossed by bus we could only stay for 15 days. If we flew which was very expensive then it would could stay for 30 days. Either way we would pay $35. We had planned to stay for 31 days. This way we can take a bus and stay for 31 days & not have to deal with the border hassled of getting a visa.
Walked over to Vietnamese History Museum & toured it for about 45 minutes.
Took taxi from museum to hotel area. Alethea hasn't been feeling to go with the heat so we spent $2.24 to go a few miles back to our hotel.
Ate dinner @ Cafe 333. There was some type of wreck outside the cafe and possible an altercation afterward which caused a scene.
Bought a pack of cigars from a girl who came into the restaurant for $5. Cheaper than at home.
Came back to hotel before 7 pm. Took showers. Got online. Went to bed.

Thursday January 13th
Slept all the way until 9 am and then I only woke up because I had set my alarm for 9 am so we wouldn't miss the free breakfast server by our hotel.
We left our hotel around 10:30 and spent a couple hours walking around a large market somewhat close to our hotel then walked a few block over to another street market before walking back to our hotel.
Came back in around 12:30 and washed up then went for lunch around 1:30. We were back in a our hotel by 3 pm.
We researched Thailand primarily Bangkok until 6 pm.
Picked up laundry. All pieces of laundry were present and it only cost $2.50.
Ate dinner.
Took showers and worked on this blog :-)

Friday January 14th
Slept in until 9 am
Ate breakfast
Arranged to check out @ 1 pm and confirmed what our bill would with all the different options of paying in US cash, Vietnamese, or by credit card
Booked hotel for 3 nights in Bangkok
Made inquiry about an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Checked out of hotel
Took taxi airport (cost $5 USD)
Checked in and made it through security with no problems.
Alethea went to a VIP lounge while listened to a Dave Ramsey podcast and edited some pictures.
Flight was delayed by about 20 minutes.
End of Vietnam blog