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Up and Down in Vietnam

Author: Brian W Fisher
Date of Trip: November 2013

Up and Down in Vietnam

Having toured most of South East Asia, with the exception of Vietnam, I wanted to redress that omission.

One can study the many Internet sites, which advertise holidays and tours to that country as well as read the countless reviews by past travellers.

It is difficult to choose unless you know exactly what it is that you wish to experience. Maybe just a ‘flavour’ – perhaps to visit a world famous region such as Ha long Bay – or to see as much of a country as possible within a specific time frame and budget. In my case, it was the latter.

I had already ‘done my homework’ which let me plan an itinerary. But, would that itinerary maximise my experience. That I wasn’t certain about. Good local knowledge (provided it is given without bias) is almost priceless and should be sought whenever in doubt.

Writing to a few Tour Operators based in the country you want to visit, is a great way to gain knowledge and evaluate what responses you receive. I do so each time I intend to tour a new country or region and did so on this occasion.

Of the three replies received, one did seem to stand out, not only by the professionalism shown, but by the offer to ‘mix and match’ any of the suggested itineraries. This suited me perfectly and once a final quote was received and accepted, I began to plan in detail, corresponded with that company – Asia Tour Advisor (from its Hanoi headquarters) and between us, ‘tweaked’ the itinerary to one of 14 days.

Hanoi. I was to begin here and end in Ho Chi Minh City – visiting Ha long Bay, Da nang, Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang in between. Not wanting to make a long (overnight) train journey, I opted to take flights between each major venue – thus the reason for the title of this piece.

Hanoi is certainly a bustling city full of contrasts. The old and the new are very different both in architecture and style. It suited my plans better to base myself in what is called ‘the old quarter’. Life here is as genuine as one could find. Narrow streets, streams of buzzing motorbikes, shops of all types, restaurants and cafes to suit all tastes, pavement vendors of everything from homemade items to wok-fried shrimps. I relished it all, even more so when, for a couple of dollars, sat in a cyclo (Vietnam’s wheeled version of the old rickshaw) as its owner peddled me around streets I’d not ventured down when walking.

I ‘took in’ (as did many tourists) a few landmarks such as the Vietnam Ethnology Museum, Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, all interesting and worth a visit.
Splashing out around ten more dollars late one afternoon, I sat among the theatre audience of hundreds, watching the famous Water Puppet Show. The skilful display lasted about an hour and by the looks on people’s faces as they left the theatre, it was a huge success.

Ha long Bay.

A pleasant drive from Hanoi took me to the quayside of this UNESCO-declared, World Heritage Site. Much has already been written about this area so I won’t go into any fine detail. A simple overview, perhaps? So here goes.

Ha Long Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the up-thrusting limestone karsts hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves and hidden lagoons that can only be reached by small craft navigating through breaks in the karsts – and only at low tide.

As one would expect, there are many boat companies offering tours in and around the bay. My choice was to take a two day (one night) cruise with one named Glory Cruises. They have two boats, one quite new (my choice) but both resembling Chinese Junks when their sails were hoisted. I found absolutely nothing to complain about, the cabins – the food and the crew interaction were well honed to passenger’s needs.

From a large hatch in its side, I and others, stepped down into a much smaller tender and taken to areas the mothership could not reach. From a wooden jetty at a floating village, we changed craft yet again, either into two-person kayaks or flat-bottomed boats, small enough to enter the low openings in the cliffs and emerge into fully enclosed lagoons. Quite magical!

Sung Sot Cave is a an ‘out of this world’ experience. Reached only by boat, its size and complexity is mind boggling. Ignore the fifty or so steep steps to its tiny entrance – just climb them – squeeze yourself through a narrow ‘slit’ in the rocks and enter this massive, cathedral-like wonderland.

At around noon the next day saw us alight back onto the harbour quayside, identify our guides and drivers and head back to Hanoi.

Ha long Bay truly is a ‘must see’ when visiting Vietnam and I’m glad that I incorporated it into my plan.

Hue (pronounced ‘whey’)

Reached this town by the first of my internal flights with Vietnam Airlines. A brief few words about this carrier…on time – clean – cabin crew excellent – organisation as good as many majors.

Hue is an interesting city steeped in history. There are examples of both Asian and European past influence but over recent decades the Vietnamese have gradually stamped their mark.
As well as doing a bit of individual ‘nosing’, I asked my guide to show me the most important landmarks. I can say that he relished the fact that I listened to his explanations of each venue we visited.

After taking a short cruise on the Perfume River, where I viewed what looked like very tranquil riverside villages, he took me to the Thiem Mu Pagoda, the Imperial Citadel, the tombs of emperor Minh Mang and Khai Dinh.

Another fascinating place is the Dong Ba Market, a thriving shoulder to shoulder example of free enterprise, commercial life piled high with goods, inviting to local folk and tourists alike.

Hoi an

I was really looking forward to the 140 kilometer drive up and over ‘The Pass of Ocean Clouds’ from Hue to Hoi an. This was reputed to be the best way to view the mountainous, panoramic scenery. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. Torrential rain coupled with dense, mountain mist made it impossible to see further than the bonnet of our car for 90% of the journey. A real pity!

That journey took almost twice as long as normal and both the driver and I were certainly relieved when he applied the car’s parking brake on arrival at my booked hotel, the Vinh Hung 2. I’d chosen this accommodation on the advice of Asia Tour Advisor, as being in the perfect location for the exploration (by foot or cycle) of all this city’s highlights, which, happily, are congregated in one small area. That advice turned out to be perfect.

In one single afternoon, walking alongside my knowledgeable guide, I experienced the sights and sounds of the ancient quarter, where Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese history displayed its various stylistic architecture and way of living.

At a leisurely pace I was escorted across the Japanese Covered Bridge (built in 1593),visited the amazing Chua Ong Pagoda, a 200 year old Chinese merchant’s house, the ancient Assembly Hall where, in years gone by and after much haggling, commercial deals were struck.

Noting farmers fertilizing their crops with seaweed from the local lake was an eye opener. Eating with Vietnamese families was fun (and tasty) as I joined in cooking tan huu (spring roll) and banh xeo (pancakes).

Nha Trang

A short flight from Hoi an took me to Vietnam’s popular beach resort of Nha Trang, where I’d planned to relax for few days after so much traveling and visiting so many attractions. Well, that was the plan – but it turned out to be a time of vivid contrasts and wildly differing experiences.

Let me start with the accommodation I’d chosen – the Hanoi Golden Hotel, located in the centre of the highly touristy area comprised mainly of two streets – streets lined with advertisement hoardings printed in Russian. That came as a bit of a surprise, as at no time over the past eight days had I seen such.

This hotel was to be my only disappointment. Although recently built – and with most ‘mod-cons’, for whatever reasons, the establishment seemed to be dysfunctional and oddly managed.

Each day saw the hotel lobby crammed with arriving tourists awaiting allocation of rooms which were not ready for occupation. An under-manager explained to me privately, that the reason was due to guests of a certain nationality, refusing to vacate their rooms by the allotted time. Of course such a situation caused friction and overheard altercations between guests and the harassed front-office staff struggling to cope, were commonplace.

Another most confusing rule was the one where a guest wishing to use the small rooftop swimming pool, had to travel via the elevator from whatever floor their room was located, down to the lobby, wait to be ‘registered’ for a towel, sign accordingly and then travel upward again to the pool. This rigmarole taking place while the so-called pool area staff sat half hidden behind a screen playing computer games! Quite weird, to say the least.

Then there was the incident where I, having duly recorded the possession of a towel, arrived at the pool – a pool surrounded by a narrow timber decking – slipped off my sandals and headed for a vacant lounger. After a reactive shout of, “Ouch!” I found a shard of glass embedded in my right heel. My shout did alert a staff member who raced off to acquire some basic first aid kit. The glass splinter was easily removed, the wound treated with antiseptic and duly covered. An accident of course, but when I noticed many more small pieces of glass littering the decking and asking when the deck was last inspected and cleaned…the answer was conspicuous by its absence.

It is difficult (and most unusual) for me to pen such a negative review of a modern hotel but if the way it is run is to be improved, then perhaps, when management reads it, the necessary ‘corrections’ will be implemented to the benefit of guests?

But, unfortunately the issues don’t stop at this point. Many guests had pre-booked excursions – with hotel pick-ups arranged for 0700 hrs, so, naturally, they wished to take breakfast early. A quite startling scenario faced them. The opening times – displayed on notices and in-room info packs – are stated to be 0600 hrs to 0900 hrs. On each of the three occasions I entered the dining room at 0600 hrs along with many other guests (mainly Russian) the only person present was a cleaner wielding a floor mop.

Not until almost twenty minutes has passed, did restaurant staff begin to bring items of food to the buffet table and prepare tea and coffee machines. This was a total shambles which led to unpleasant outbursts by way of the Cyrillic alphabet.

I did bring this (and the other issues) to the attention of middle management but failed to secure an interview with the hotel’s General Manager – although I had requested such on three occasions.

Enough about this hotel. What about the town itself? It now boasts a new, large airport with wide roads leading to and from Nha Trang. And here lies yet another problem for both visitors and locals alike.

An ex-pat Australian explained, thus…

The Vietnam government had agreed to allow a Russian Charter Company, Pegas (Turkish owned) to operate 72 direct flights per month from Russia to Nha Trang. Some 4500 Russian tourists per week have been landing there since October 2013, with a total of over 100,000 expected by April of 2014.

Digging a little deeper, I learned that package deals offered to Russian tourists, including flights and accommodation were available for as little as US $700. Airfares alone from the UK can be twice that amount. I began to wonder whether such a staggering differential was the reason for the type of Russian tourist I encountered during my three night stay. I suppose I should tell you that I am in my 81st year (but believe I’m still in my early 50s!!! Ha ha!) and have toured over 40 countries in both packaged and own arrangement categories, Nha Trang certainly turned upside-down every interaction with people of many races, I’d ever encountered.

Apparently, bottles (uncountable) of a clear alcoholic beverage starting with the letter ‘V’ was the tipple of choice – and when mixed with the cheap, strong, easily available local beer, the results of overindulgence were visible everywhere.

Scenes of altercation were not uncommon and on one evening nudged even me into reacting, when an inebriated individual, perhaps around forty years of age, began berating, in his own language (I’ll leave you to guess which) and obviously frightening a number of young Vietnamese people who were sat dining around one large table in a restaurant close to my hotel.

Remembering the old adage that, ‘evil can only happen if good men stand aside and let it’ (or some such phrase), I, with a degree of trepidation, faced the individual and asked, with a mixture of words and signs, to please quieten himself down and leave the young folk alone.

Now what?

He glowered at me and without warning, swung a right-handed haymaker at my head. Instinctively, my 65 year old army training kicked in. I grabbed his wrist with my left hand and pulled it towards me – and almost simultaneously connected my right elbow with the underside of his chin.
Hmmm!!! Result? One horizontal idiot with a broken jaw.

The restaurant’s proprietor refused to give me a bill – the young folk kind of applauded. I managed an apologetic grin – and left.

The next morning (bright and very early – missing breakfast) I – sporting a large yellowish/blue elbow – along with a few other like-minded tourists, boarded a boat at the nearby dockyard and left for some offshore islands famous for their coral formations.
We’d all booked through a European-run Diving Company named Rainbow Divers, which came highly recommended for its professionalism and stringent safety practices.

Prohibited from scuba diving following a couple of heart problems, I (and two disgracefully fit and energetic Austrian guys) were content to don masks, snorkels and flippers and paddle on the surface watching the more intrepid divers go through their paces below.

It was a great half day trip. There were indeed shoals of fish darting amongst the coral formations – the only downside, that being the passage of Typhoon Haiyan a few days earlier, which had clouded the water. Nevertheless, both divers and snorkelers had plenty to talk about on the way back to the harbour.
Nah Trang is expanding fast! Would I return as part of a Vietnam tour? Probably not. There are many more interesting places to visit.

Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon if you prefer?)

Wow! What a city. Thinking that nowhere could there be more motorbikes and scooters than in Hanoi, the sheer volume and speed of them in Saigon was truly staggering. “Number one lesson,” my guide said to me on leaving the airport… “when you step off pavement to cross road – you never must stop…please to keep walking straight – all motorbikes go around you. If you stop, there will be big accident.” How about that for an opening gambit?

Safely (?) inside the confines of a Toyota mini van, I watched in amazement as the driver somehow navigated the swarms of two-wheeled vehicles – all seemingly hellbent on reaching a chosen destination ahead of any others and totally ignoring road signs and even traffic lights. ‘Pandemonium’ would be a fair description – yet in three days (and three nights) I never saw a single accident.

I was greeted with the utmost curtesy on arrival at the Signature Saigon Hotel. Officially three star branded, I would certainly endorse many comments made by fellow guests, that the hotel deserved its rating. The staff here had been well schooled and were totally efficient in carrying out their duties.

It was a busy hotel, located as it was, a few minutes walk one way to the city’s cracking night market and plethora of restaurants, whilst a similar distance walk in the opposite direction led to the wide and well used River Saigon.

The state of my bone joints would not fare well if I tried to experience the confines of the Cu Chi Tunnels – the incredible underground network constructed by Vietnamese fighters during the long struggle for independence, so I gave them a miss.

Instead, I made visits to the War Remnant Museum – a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man – the Notre Dame Cathedral (no guessing who built that edifice) – the Post Office with its remarkable architecture and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. All are well worth seeing.

No tour of Vietnam would be complete without experiencing the Mighty Mekong, what it carries and how so many people live on it and at each side of it. I spent most of one day in boats of different sizes witnessing the diverse occupations of those who rely upon its constant movement and what it can (and does) provide. On occasion, I ventured ashore, was invited into the river-folk’s meagre homes, helped prepare and cook spring rolls – ate some of course – watched local villagers dance, sing and play musical instruments which I had never before seen.

One delightful hour passed too quickly as a Vietnamese woman stood behind me paddling a sampan as I sat clicking the shutter of my Nikon between periods of taking video recordings of the winding tributary that meandered through dense woodland. A truly magical journey through time and nature.

On the river’s wider expanses, entire villages such as the colourful Cai Rang Floating Market bustle with activity, its inhabitants jostling for trade and ‘advertising’ their particular speciality by crying out across the water. If its grown, caught, reared or exchanged, then it’s available.

As do all travellers, I headed out from my hotel each night to sample what gastronomic delicacies awaited – and I wasn’t disappointed. Eating establishments of all classes were ready to cater for most tastes, although I stuck religiously to those offering mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes accompanied by glasses of ice-cold local beer. Prices were more than reasonable everywhere, whether shopping for souvenirs, a haircut, a meal or snack or a bed for the night.

My 14 day tour of Vietnam had come to an end. With the exception of Nha Trang, it had been memorable, enjoyable, entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile.

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