Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), Vietnam

Our third (and final) overnight train ride was much less stressful, and we arrived very early in the morning in Ho Chi Minh City.  In the 18thcentury the area was occupied by the Nguyen lord based in Hue and named ‘Sai Gon’ after the kapok tree.  In 1802 he returned to Hué as the new emperor Gia Long and Saigon remained the administrative centre in the south, during which French traders and missionaries settled here.  The 1862 Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochin China and Saigon came to be known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Begun in the 1940s, this legendary tunnel network allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area close to Saigon.  At its peak, the tunnel system stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border.  Over 250 kms of tunnels, some several stories deep included living areas, hospitals, storage facilities, weapons factories and kitchens.



Reunification Palace

This was built in 1871 for the French Governor-General of Indochina, and it was later used as the presidential palace.  It was extensively damaged in an assassination attempt and subsequently demolished.  The current building was erected in 1966 and renamed Reunification Palace after April 30, 1975 when tanks smashed through the front gates and Saigon surrendered to Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers.



Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta area is an intricate pattern of streams and canals.  Water is the focus of life and the main means of transportation.  Floating houses, markets, and fishing boats are everywhere.  The Mekong travels 4500 kms from the Tibetan Plateau to the delta, where it splits into the tributaries which give the area its name Song Cuu Long – River of Nine Dragons.  The rich soil and silt distributed by the river make the region agriculturally rich, growing predominantly rice and fruit. 


Coconut Temple (in the Mekong Delta)



And that concludes my whirlwind trip to Vietnam. As you can see, it’s an amazing country and I hope to go back one day. I am so grateful for the new international friends I made on this trip, and I hope we can meet up to travel together again one day!




Nha Trang, Vietnam

It was time for our second overnight train ride, and this one did not go well…AT ALL!! When we got on board, there were people in our rooms and sleeping in our beds! When our guide went in to tell them to leave, they gave her an attitude.  So we had to go into cars with dirty sheets that had lingering dirty smells.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, all 4 of us found bugs in our beds and cockroaches on the floor.  It was all so disturbing, that we all busted out as much gear as we could to not have to make contact with any part of the room: mosquito nets, hoodies, raincoats – whatever we could find!



In the morning, we reached the city, Nha Trang.  This port city is the biggest in Khanh Hoa province and lies at the opening of the Cai River, which runs for 412 km into Saigon. Khanh Hoa has a 200 km coastline and I was told the weather is pretty much perfect all year.  There were a few sites we could have visited, but we only had one day here.  We were all so traumatized from our train experience, we spent the whole time recovering at the beach and bars:


Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An was definitely my favorite city in Vietnam! Hoi An is an ancient port town on the Thu Bon River.  The first inhabitants of the area were the Champa, who occupied the area from the 2nd-15th centuries.  Then under Vietnamese rule, the city attracted foreign trade, particularly with China, supplying silk, fabrics, tea, pepper, and medicines.  Other ships came from Japan, Portugal, Spain, India & France.  Old maps who Hoi An (then known as Faifo) as one of the most important trading ports of SE Asia.


At night, on the opposite side of the Thu Bon River, across from the Old Quarter of town, there is a street of lanterns.  They light them up every night – they were beautiful!


One of the ways to cross the river is via the Japanese Covered Bridge.  This was most likely constructed by the Japanese community to link the Chinese and Japanese quarters in the 16th century.  It has a green and yellow tiled roof, with 2 guardian dogs on the east side and 2 guardian monkeys on the west.  A small Japanese-style pagoda to protect sailors is built into the north side. The lighting was tricky so I could only get one good photo.


Our second day in Hoi An, we went on a bike tour.  We got to see a lot of the countryside, and learned to how crops got watered.


We even got to go on a buffalo ride!


Our bike trip ended with a boat ride down the river.

My last day in Hoi An, I took a cooking class with one other person in our group, Chuck.  The class started off with a visit to the local market:

We then cooked a full 4-course meal:

Hué, Vietnam

A few nights after Halong Bay, I had my first overnight train experience in Vietnam.  They sure know how to squeeze people into one room – there were 4 of us in our “cabin”. The photos don’t accurately show exactly how small it was in there. I roomed with Mathilda, Amanda, & Laura.


We arrived early the next morning in a town called Hué.  Imperial capital of the Nguyen Emporers, Hué was the political center of Vietnam from 1802-1945.  The most popular way to explore Hué is by motorbike. This was my driver/guide for the tour:


We visited  the Thanh Toan covered bridge; ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

the countryside;ImageImageImageImageImage

the Thu Hieu Pagoda and Imperial Eunich graves;ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

the elephant and tiger fighting arena;ImageImageImage

the former US base overlooking the Perfume River;ImageImageImageImageImageImage

conical hat making:ImageImageImageImageImage

and incense making;ImageImageImageImage

Early the next morning, Mathilda, Amanda & I went see the Citadel.  The Imperial Palace was modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, while the ramparts follow French military architecture.  It is comprised of 3 walled enclosures, each within the other.  The exterior moated enclosure encompasses 6 square kilometers.

Editor’s note: I accidentally hit “publish” before putting the Citadel photos up. When I went back to update, I couldn’t have the photos in the same format. You should be able to see a “gallery” below of the  photos. Thanks for your patience as I’m still figuring this site out!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Next stop was Halong Bay.  The name Ha Long Bay is literally translated as “Bay of Descending Dragons.” The legend of the area is that long ago, the Viet people were attached by foreign aggressors.  The Jade emperor sent a mother dragon and a herd of child dragons to help the Viet fight the invaders.  While the enemy vessels were launching massive attacks against the mainland, the dragons descended into flocks from the sky.  They spat out innumerable pearls that, in an instant, were changed into jade stone islands linked together into firm citadels that checked the enemy’s advance and smashed their vessels into pieces.  This helped lead to the Viet victory.  Halong Bay is more than 3000 islands and rocks that rise from crystal clear waters.  Here are some photos from our boat ride around the bay (peep the freshly caught lunch!):



And here are some photos of our group – you’ll see them pop up throughout other posts 🙂

Carolin & Wiebke (from Germany)Image


Pernille (from Denmark) & Lousia (from England)



Our whole international crew!



The boat made one stop at Thien Cung Grotto.  This is considered the Cave of the Dragon, where the dragon who created Halong (see story above) sought refuge.  There’s a legend surrounding the cave about a young girl who, in order to end years of oppressive drought, married the presiding dragon in the cave, and their wedding was attended by all in the animal kingdom.  It is a “dead cave” in that, unlike many limestone caves, it is no longer dripping water and growing formations of additional deposits or creating new fissures and caves.



Can you see the dragon’s head in this rock formation?



We took the boat back to Halong Beach and spent the night there. Not much to speak of in the town, but it was fun to stay to close to the Bay.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Going to see Vietnam has been on my list for several years now, and I was more than thrilled to finally make it.  I had heard from several people that the best parts of the country are the towns between Hanoi (in the north) and Ho Chi Minh (the south).  Fellow travelers I met over the years said the best way to get from place to place is to find a tour or a guide. After a lot of research and cost comparison, I decided to join a “G adventures” tour. G adventures is the same tour group that I hiked Machu Picchu with so I knew they would be good. It was nice to have all the logistics taken care of – transportation, places to stay. But it was also nice to have the freedom to do what we wanted once we made it to each town.  Our leader would offer up suggestions but no one was bound a schedule.  I arrived in Vietnam a few days before the tour began – my visa from Indonesia was running out so I had to leave.  I flew into Ho Chi Minh on Saturday and then flew up to Hanoi on Sunday afternoon. I spent the rest of the day just wandering the streets. My favorite part were all the narrow streets:



On Monday I took a day trip to Hoa Lu & Tam Coc, two areas that are 2 hours south of Hanoi.  Hoa Lu is the relics of the ancient capital and temples dedicated to King Dinh and King Le remain. The two heroes who lived in 10th century chose Hoa Lu to build the citadel of the capital city then. Archaeologists continue to excavate buried parts of the ancient citadel with rusty weapons and ceramics. The temples are said to be built on the old foundation of their original palaces from the 11 and 12th centuries, then restored in 17th century. Though the temples are not maintained entirely some precious antiques are still preserved such as the whole-stone dragon thrones, wooden and lacquered statues of King Dinh, Kinh Le, Queen Duong Van Nga – who in turn married both of the kings.



We took a short bike ride after lunch and saw some amazing landscapes.



Tam Coc translates to “Three Caves” and is very near to Hoa Lu. We took row-boat trip (they row the boats using their feet!) through the area’s three caves.  The meandering river is lined by rice paddies and guarded by limestone cliffs, often inhabited by local goats.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage


On Tuesday, I took a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, which is a vast complex of Buddhist temples built among the limestone hills and tropical forests in the area of Huong Mountain.  The center of the complex is Chua Trong (inner temple) located in Huong Tich Cave.


We then took a cable car to the top of the mountain to see some views and to visit some other pagodas.



Last on the agenda was a row boat ride on the Yen Stream. While very relaxing, nothing extremely different from yesterdays river trip.



Wednesday was my chill day. I moved hotels because our group was meeting up that evening. I took a stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake which is the centerpiece of Hanoi.


The highlight from this day is that I was able to find a new backpack!! If you’re a backpacker, you can understand the time and energy it takes to find the right one, as well as the high prices that are involved. Fortunately, a lot of things made in Vietnam are cheaper to buy! This pack cost over $350 on the internet, but a mere $20 on the streets of Hanoi!  Check out my new traveling buddy:



Thursday, the group went to visit some Hanoi landmarks.  The Mausoleum contains Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body.  The Ho Chi Minh Museum documents his life and the modern history of Vietnam.


The Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) is Vietnam’s oldest institution of higher education.  Dedicated to Confucious, the temple served as a national university for over 700 years educating Mandarins.  Students at the time used an ideographic script based on Chinese.



And that wraps up my 5 days in Hanoi!!