Vietnam p1

Written by on January 31, 2013 in Asia, General with 2 Comments

Vietnam. What can I say other than what a fantastic time I’ve had here so far! I’ve loved everything about my visit here, including having to play the human equivalent of the video game Frogger every time I want to cross the street and not get maimed by a motorbike, to the crazy holiday decorations, to the Full Moon Lantern Festival in Hoi An, and especially my amazing friends who flew in from all over the world to spend the holidays with me. Thanks guys! This country is definitely on the rise. Forget the BRICs…if I had any money I think I’d invest in Vietnam. Well…I say that without doing any due diligence whatsoever except the feeling I got just being here. I saw little to no evidence that this is still a Communist country, except maybe the gigantic red and yellow flags that seemed to fly everywhere.

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Everyone in this country seems extremely entrepreneurial and willing to work hard…especially to earn tourist dollars. I didn’t see any begging anywhere. With over 3,000 kilometers of beautiful coastline, interesting historical and cultural sites, great weather (at least now), and inexpensive hotels and restaurants, I would highly recommend everyone add it to their travel to-do list.

Anyway…after a very late night out in Lan Kwai Fong, I BARELY made my flight from Hong Kong, and had to beg to skip the line at customs and at security, but thankfully the nice people in line were in less than a hurry than I was!! Super-hung-over, I dropped my bags at my seat and walked back through the plane to find Deborah (aka Vixen), who had flown in all the way from NYC to hang out for the next couple weeks so we could spend the holidays together. After I gave her a big hug and a look that screamed “I have a story for you, but I feel so sick I need to find my seat ASAP and I may hurl at any time”, I plopped in my seat and passed out until we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Excited to see Vixen, but still felt like ass pretty much all day. It did not help at all that we had to wait for our visas in a terminal with no air conditioning for over an hour. I do not know how I managed to not get sick, but somehow I made it through, and I think I have to thank the Coke and cheeseburger from the Burger King just outside of baggage claim to thank. Ugh. Why do I keep doing this to myself?!?

We withdrew some “play money” from the ATM and hopped in a taxi. I say “play money” because the exchange rate to US dollars is something around 21,000 Vietnamese “dong” to 1USD. Try not to laugh or think about the foreign exchange student from Sixteen Candles when you say DONG out loud. I still can’t do it. “DONG!!! DONG!!! The Dong’er need food!” You’d think I’d be over it, but childishly I’m still not! Needless to say, it was tough to get used to the currency, and we just tried to stick to the thought that a 100,000 dong note was about $5. Weird to carry around 500,000 notes, and that they were only worth about $25.

Anyway… the sugar from my coke had revived me temporarily for our ride to out hotel and I started feeling at least a little bit alive. I was definitely alive enough to realize how funny it was when Vix made a comment after seeing about a gazillion scooters (aka motorbikes) crossing through a huge intersection something along the lines of “wow – I didn’t realize there’d be a scooter convention in town over Christmas”. I know this doesn’t seem as funny in print as it did when she said it, but she had obviously not been told that Ho Chi Minh City possibly has more motorbikes per capita than anywhere in the world and what we saw crossing that intersection was nothing compared to what we’d be exposed to in our time in the city. The motorbikes were CRAZY! There were just SO MANY OF THEM! It’s funny, because individually they didn’t seem intimidating at all. It’s just a person…or two…or three…or sometimes a family of five! on a scooter. What’s scary about that? Well…if you put thousands of them at a time together coming at you down a street while you’re trying to cross an intersection, most of which do not have street lights, it can be VERY SCARY!!! So, the “Scooter convention” comment was fricking hilarious…and we teased Vix every time we saw lots of scooters, but it took weeks before we felt comfortable crossing the street without feeling like we could possibly lose a limb.

After several laughs about the several scooter conventions in town, we found the Victory Hotel, checked in and headed up to the roof to hang by the pool with Shin, Jane and David, friends I knew from my days in NYC who have since moved to Korea and had flown into Saigon 2 days before. Yay. Love big reunions, especially around the holidays!!!

We had a late lunch at a beautiful restaurant called Nha Hang Ngon where they prepared all the food on a long table out in the open where the patrons could watch.

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Everything looked delicious and we were starving! We had to practically be rolled out of there, and decided to go explore a bit around the packed and festive street.

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The streets were lined with crazy lights and decorations.

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There were sooo many motorbikes! Families were piled onto scooters – we saw several with a mom, dad and 3 kids riding along with the millions of others. Even more hilarious was watching Vixen try to cross the street. We were slap-happy, and she had been awake for nearly 48 hours flying over, so pretty much everything seemed hilarious. Shin even video-taped her trying to cross at one point. Not pretty! But definitely fucking funny! Families were piled onto scooters.

We somehow ended up inside some surprisingly super-upscale mall as I was looking for a cheap sim card for my iphone, and they had a Xmas tree all lit up outside made up completely of Sapporo beer cans. Strange. But cool looking.

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We stopped in at the Rex Hotel to have a drink at their rooftop bar and then headed home for an early night. For a country that is only 8% Christian, there were TONS of Christmas decorations and some beautiful trees scattered throughout the city.

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My big question was how and when did Ho Chi Minh City become so rich? It was tripping me out! I had expected “third world” and I was definitely way off as most of the area we were in was wealthy, at least compared to any third world country I’ve ever been too. We stopped in at the Rex Hotel for a drink as we’d heard they might have a good party for New Years at their rooftop bar and ended up staying for a drink before heading home for an early night as everyone was pretty jet lagged.

The next day was Christmas Eve, although didn’t feel like it at all as it was about 85, humid and partly sunny. The gang had an earlier flight than me to Nah Trang, a beach town about an hour north, as I’d initially thought I’d be coming in from Northern Vietnam and their flight had since sold out, so I hung by the pool, caught up on emails/blogging, and just chilled out and caught my breath as the last few days/weeks had been such a whirlwind. I caught a 530p flight to Nah Trang, and met up with everyone just in time for dinner. We went to a place that was highly recommended on Trip Advisor, although now I can’t remember the name of it and can’t be bothered to look it up as it obviously was not memorable enough to name, but we had a good time anyway.

We went to Nah Trang in the first place as we’d heard that it was supposed to be a bit of a party place and it was on a beach. I know it was Christmas Eve, but we checked out all the bars in town and it is definitely NOT a party place if you’re used to going out in any major city in the world. I don’t know why I expected differently. Sometimes the Lonely Planet hits it right on, but they were definitely stretching with their description here. With washed up cheesy bars with names like “Why Not” and “Apocalypse Now”, which were cheesy and lame, and it seemed like most of the people frequenting them were too, especially the annoyingly rude Russians that seemed to be crawling all over Nah Trang. We googled why there were so many Russians here and didn’t learn much other than the fact that they now have direct flights from several cities in Russia, so I guess Nah Trang (and I later learned Mui Ne is the same) is THE beach destination for Russions. Who knew? We did meet some cute Swedes dressed up in satin santa suits that were definitely in the holiday spirit!

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On Christmas Day we all met at the beach, even though the skies were overcast and threatening rain. Shin brought his Bose speaker and some good tunes and we drank $1 beers til late afternoon when we finally made a move to grab a late lunch at the Sailing Club, a cool loungey beach bar.

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Our lazy day continued into the evening at which point we eventually said farewell to Shin, Jane and David as Vix and I were catching an early (cheap) flight north to Da Nang, while they were headed south to Dalat and Mui Ne. We had different ideas of what we wanted to see for our Vietnam trip, and flying was the only way we’d be able to squeeze in Central Vietnam.

I had arranged for a taxi to meet our flight so that we could do a quickie tour of Da Nang, which is what used to be refered to as the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. This is where US Marines waded ashore to join the war. Today it’s one of Vietnam’s largest cities with a bustling economy and is growing rapidly. Driving around the city wasn’t so interesting, other than seeing all the new construction including two massive new suspension bridges, but we’d asked the driver to take us to see the Marble Mountains, five marble outcrops that were once islands and now house several small Hindu and Buddhist sanctuaries, a picturesque pagoda and some scenic views.

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We then made a brief stop on China Beach, once an R&R hangout for American soldiers during the Vietnam War. One interesting thing worth noting – in Vietnam they refer to it as the American War. Hmmmm….

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I used to love that show with Dana Delaney. What ever happened to the guy who played Boonie? Totally forgot about that guy!?! We must have still been slap-happy as I brought up the theme song “Reflections Of” on YouTube on my phone and played it loudly as we drove along the beach. Just needed to add a few helicopter sound affects and it would’ve been like we were almost there! Well…I guess not. Yes…I know…I can be very cheesy at times.

About a half an hour later, we arrived at the Sunrise Hotel in Hoi An…possibly my biggest splash out of the trip. It was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in – EVER – and we were psyched that it was only $140/night. I have been averaging about $15-20/night on accommodation for the trip, so this was a huge upgrade. But, it was worth every dollar as it was AMAZING! It’s just too bad that the overcast gloomy weather followed us up the coast and we couldn’t enjoy the two infinity pools or beachside location to the fullest.

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The rest of the place was just as nice. 5 star all the way. My thank you to Vix for flying all this way to hang with me for the holidays. Too bad it was overcast, but it didn’t matter.

We took a taxi into town to get there in time for sunset and realized that we had luckily stumbled into Hoi An on the night of the Full Moon Lantern Festival. What timing! The festival is a magical night that they celebrate on the 14th day in the lunar calendar month where the town switches off its lights and closes the streets to motorised traffic, transforming the old town into multi-colored lanterns and flickering candellight. The locals use this night to honor their ancestors, and all the temples in town are open for guests to visit (or pray) with no charge.

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The little town was gorgeous…I only wish my camera took better pictures by moonlight! We bought candles to float down the river from the cutest little kids…smart sales tactic. Also helped that they only cost the equivalent of $1. It seemed like just about everything cost $1, which is always nice!

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The lanterns were gorgeous…I wanted to take one of these home, but it wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

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The next day was still overcast, but we tried to make the best of it and walked into town. We’d wanted to rent bikes, but with rain threatening, we thought better of it and this way we could window shop more easily. We made a few stops, including one at a beautiful riverside cafe where I couldn’t help but lay back to enjoy my beer.

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Hoi An is well known for how good it’s tailoring services are. Many people come here from all over the world to have suits, dresses, or whatever made. This cafe decided to take the initiative and invite husbands of shoppers to come in and make themselves comfortable 🙂

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I didn’t have anything made as I don’t think one more thing will fit into my backpack! Oh well…next time! We had a couple drinks and a light dinner in town and retreated to our fabulous hotel to enjoy it a little longer.

We caught a bus to to Hue the next day, which took about 4 hours on a scenic road past little villages and rice paddies and gave a little more perspective into rural Vietnam. We checked into another amazing hotel, but I wasn’t feeling so hot, so instead of exploring the Hue nightlife, we decided to enjoy our luxurious hotel, watch TV and order room service – a first for my entire trip! It was just what the doctor ordered as I was raring to go when our little guide arrived the next morning for our private tour of the ancient imperial city. This was the view out the french balcony doors from our room.

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Hue is apparently “the intellectual, cultural and spiritual heart of Vietnam”, according to LP. It was the political capital for nearly 150 years under 13 emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, up until 1945. We only had one day to explore everything Hue had to offer, so we hired an ambitious guide who’d cornered us getting off the bus from Hoi An the previous day. For $15 each, I felt like that was a fair price to pay as our hotel had been advertising a big bus tour for $80/pp and we didn’t have time to see everything independently in just one day. I abhor big bus tours, anyway.

What we didn’t realize was that our “guide” was just there to tell the driver where to take us, and then he’d wait in the car for us to visit the sites. It was fine. We had more fun not knowing what we were looking at and had our trusty guide book to fill in the blanks.

Our first stop was at a small pagoda, which was quite pretty, that I will always remember for the little old lady that completely ripped me off when I bought a bottle of water from her. It was my fault for not counting correctly, but the 10,000 dong notes and the 100,000 notes look nearly identical. I’d only had a 500,000 dong note and was surprised that she could even change it, but now know why she was eager to do so. In the pile of change she counted bcak to me in my hand, she slipped in a 10 for a 100, making that the most expensive bottle of water I’ve had on this trip. Well…water in Pacha Ibiza might have cost more 😉

Our second stop was at the Tu Doc Tomb, which was really impressive. Built in 1864m for Emperor Tu Doc, the 4th and longest emperor in the Nguyen Dynasty. Apparently Tu Doc had 100 wives, with no offspring, and was instrumental in designing the complex, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful from that time. I loved the cool and barren trees that seemed to be everywhere throughout. Still haven’t found out what they are called. Anyone know?

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There were some surreal scenes, such as this one where everything seems dead, yet the faintest color pops in the background. I did not edit this photo!

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After a couple hours exploring the grounds, we headed over to see the Thien Mu Pagoda, aka the “Heavenly Lady Pagoda”, on the north bank of the Perfume River. Thien Mu is the tallest pagoda in Vietnam, with seven stories.

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We were also going to take a ride in one of these cool dragon boats on the river, but the rain detracted us.

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Our last stop of the day was at the Citadel, inside of which was the former Imperial City, built in the early 1800s. Again, we were acting silly as we’d been seeing tombs and temples all day. Just inside is where Vix did the first of many poses next to what we started calling “saucy dragons”. I will spare you the dozens of other pictures we took like this throughout Vietnam and Cambodia in future posts.

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The grounds were impressive, and there was signage up of a big celebration that looked like it was going to take place that evening – they were celebrating the two millionth visitor to Vietnam’s historic sites that year. Seemed like a big deal. We walked in on a large rehearsal of a bunch of kids dancing and singing in the middle of the city. Was cool to see – would’ve been very cool to catch a true dress rehearsal – or even the real show later that evening. Oh well. The Citadel and the Imperial City was heavily bombed by Americans, but they have done a good job with the renovations. It was the strangest thing, but at the back of the Imperial City were two tennis courts. I’m pretty sure I could have taken this guy had I been dressed for the occasion 🙂

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Pooped and ready for a cocktail, we thanked our guide for driving us back to the city, grabbed dinner at a super-cute restaurant called the Confetti Restaurant, where everything was pink and white and it felt like you were eating inside an art gallery (which we were). I’m glad we came to Hue, but am also glad we only had a day and a night there as we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Ho Chi Minh and re-connect with Shin, Jane and David and also welcome Liz, who was flying in that night from San Francisco to join in the New Years festivities. We checked back into the Victory Hotel, where we knew the room was cheap, the pool was chilled and the wifi worked. Why change something that’s not broken? Liz finally arrived at 2am – so great to see her!!!

In the morning we took a walk around town to try to find a tourist office to ask some questions to set up our next few days. We eventually found the backpacker neighborhood, Pham Ngu Lao, after crossing through the main square where hundreds were busy setting up for tomorrow’s New Years Eve festivities. I am soooo glad that we’re staying at the Victory in District 3 and not in one of the grimey looking backpacker guesthouses that were in this neighborhood. It was definitely a good reminder that that I should team up with people to stay with in Asia as sharing a double will greatly increase the hotel standard for the same price/person.

After gathering intel on possible Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels tours, we joined Vix on the roof to relax and work on our tan, while taking dips in our pool every 20 minutes to cool off from the heat and humidity. We had a fairly lazy day, took Liz to our new favorite restaurant, and met up with Shin, Jane and David later that evening to check out some local nightlife. The streets were still decorated with the crazy lights, and they were still piping in a catchy but super-annoying song on every street corner.

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Liz retired early while we tried to find whatever nightlife Saigon had to offer. We were in a taxi headed to a bar that’d been recommended to us when we started hearing a big thumping bass coming from around the corner from us. We jumped out of the taxi and followed the crowd to a square with a few thousand people dancing in front of what looked like a gigantic electronic birthday cake with a DJ spinning a Swedish House Mafia song from the top layer. To top things off, a scantily clad dancer came out with what must’ve been at least 20 silver hula hoops. Before we knew it, she was hula’ing with all 20+ hoops and all of a sudden we couldn’t see her anymore – she had turned into what looked like a giant slinky! I know it’s tough to see below, but I have it on video as proof.

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It was pretty incredible! Lol. Jane wasn’t too happy with the cheesy music though, so we headed back out through the throngs of people and back to the original plan. The bar ended up being expensive and quiet, given all the hoopla we’d experienced en route. After a couple drinks, we called it a night.

If we had more time in Saigon, or if the tourist office had told us that we wouldn’t get back to the city until after 8pm, there is no way we would have attempted the Mekong Delta tour we had scheduled for the day of New Years Eve. Lesson learned. That said, we did have a really fun day. The Mekong Delta is the area just before where the Mekong River, which has flowed all the way down from the Tibetan mountains, meets the sea in Southern Vietnam. In this region, the river splits and creates countless canals, rivers and streams and a beautiful landscape lush with fish farms and rice paddies. Our bus ride to the town of My Tho was long but not horrible, as it took us through some rural villages which are always interesting to see. We boarded our river cruise, amongst throngs of other tourists buses. Yuck. That said, I always like getting out on any kind of boat, and this was no exception, especially as the temperature seemed to immediately cool down to something reasonable once the cruise actually started.

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We passed by a floating market, which was sadly only about 10 other boats selling to each other. Apparently we would have had to do at least a 2 day tour to see the real floating market. Oh well. We got the point. Similar to the huts in Lesotho I’d seen a couple months ago, the boats would raise a flag to indicate if and what they were selling that day. Easy system. The Delta was just as brown and muddy as I’d expected after seeing so many Vietnam war movies. Being on the river, I kept remembering how miserable all the soldiers looked in the hot and muggy summers and can back up December as being one of the best times to visit Vietnam, despite the fact our tans weren’t getting any better.

After about 45 minutes cruising on the delta, we were taken to a market and taught how some local crafts and snacks like rice paper and coconut candy, which gave us the chance to pose for some silly pictures.

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We were transferred to smaller boats that were poled by little old ladies in traditional Vietnamese clothing, which look kind of like pajamas, and a conical hat. She handed one to each of us to shield us from the sun, which provided another perfect photo opportunity!

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I think we finally started heading back to Saigon after 4 and knew we were going to get back late, especially with all the traffic heading back to town. We had a little drama trying to make a quick enough turn to get to where we wanted to be by midnight, but we probably shouldn’t have had such high expectations for New Years anyway. When you do, it never quite works out as good as you’d like it to. We definitely didn’t anticipate that it would be impossible to walk, much less take a taxi, to the Bitexco Tower, where we were on a list to attend a French Tuesday party at a club called the Helipad on the 51st floor. If we didn’t have so many people to meet up with, I would have much preferred to just hang out in the streets with the locals – and the few million motorbikes! The party turned out to be ok, and the Tower had a fantastic view of the madness going on below us, but we couldn’t take the DJ any more after he played the same LMFAO song for the 4th time.

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We took to the streets to find another good spot, which was bad planning on our part as of course there were no taxis anywhere. After wandering around for a while and popping our heads into a couple lame bars, we finally called it a night.

I had maybe slept 2 hours before I woke up hurling around 5a, and didn’t stop til afternoon. I didn’t think I’d drank that much the night before, but I suppose the double vodka/sodas finally caught up to me!?? I felt much better that afternoon and we joined the gang at the New World Hotel pool, which was much nicer that ours, although we all looked and were feeling a bit rough.

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Sadly, we had to say farewell to Shin, Jane and David, who were flying back to Korea that night. I ended up staying home and nursing my stomach problems while Deb and Liz went out for a nice dinner. I didn’t mind in the least as I had been trying to sneak in the last few episodes of Homeland. Wow! What an ending!

Our last day in Saigon was extremely productive. I paid a visit to the US Consulate to get new passport pages, as I only had a few more left and found out it was only a few blocks from our hotel and would be much easier here than elsewhere. I also found a travel clinic a few blocks from our hotel and was due to get the last in my series of preventative rabies shots. We then paid a visit to the sprawling and bustling indoor Ben Thanh market to grab some lunch from one of the many food stalls in the back, Liz picked up some coffee and Vix bought a few small souvenirs before we headed to the War Remnants Museum, which we hadn’t been in the mood for the entire trip, but couldn’t not go. As creatures of habit, we hit up our favorite restaurant once again and then were off to the airport for our short flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia.

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  1. rose prado says:

    Hi Deb.
    I know your doing well and having the time of your life.. Wow!!! you really have the travel bug.. I can’t wait till you come back and tell us what were the highlights.. Everyday sounds like an adventure..
    keep us posted…

  2. DebAdmin says:

    Hi Rose, I will try to keep the blog going, although am way behind as I keep getting distracted by amazing places. Am loving the travel, but missing the tennis! Hope you’re well!

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