Vietnam: (HCMC, Nha Trang, Hanoi) (2008)

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was the first stop in Vietnam.  To many of the locals, this city is still called Saigon.  I can`t say why, but I really liked HCMC.  Vanessa and I started off with another crazy taxi experience.  I should be used to it by now, but I`m not.  I knew it should cost us about $8-10 to get to our hotel.  So when we got out of baggage claim, taxi drivers came up to us and offered us $40 each.  Then after my disgust, it went do $40 total, then $30, then $20 and I kept saying no and we walked to the official taxi stand where a man said he was the supervisor and could offer us $15.  You may think that`s close enough to the normal price, but still not good enough.  We found the taxi stand and were told $8.  Mission accomplished and we just saved $72 from the first offer.  Score!  Funny part was, the taxi ride into town was only 7 km, yet it took almost an hour based on traffic and it was more of the same with honking, changing lanes and again…no seat belts.

We dodged a few accidents a few times For dinner, we were off to explore the neighborhood and had some recommendations from our guidebook.  Too bad, they were all deserted and we found another one that looked happening.  We ended up staying there eating and drinking for 5 hours and enjoying the people watching on the street.  Its really nuts to watch the locals drive and avoid each other.  No street signs, or lights and its really survival of the bravest.  Plus the bar we were at was entertaining as it played a lot of 80`s music so that was fun.

Next morning we were in search of a highly recommended place for lunch (see below…it was amazing).  From our map, we thought we knew where we were going, but clearly the streets do not match the maps and we walked in a large circle, but at least we got to see the local women selling fruits and items and got to see how the locals really live, which was a highlight.   When we asked for directions, we were told twice the place was really far and we must take a taxi.  We thought it was closer and decided to walk and within 10 minutes we were there.  This lunch was worth all the walking and the wait as it was great.  We didn`t know what was what on the menu, and just ordered a bunch of things from salad rolls, to veggies to a Vietnamese Crab.  When the crab came, we both looked at each other with a “now what” look.  It was a whole crab, still in the shell and dripping in a yummy sauce.  So we both dug in, started cracking and made a complete mess, but it was finger licking good and a fun lunch.

Our day of sightseeing was minimal.  We actually choose to go to the Post Office.  I know…not really a highlight, but we were told it architecturally beautiful (and it was kinda like Grand Central Station in New York…you have to see it).

As we walked over town, we loved seeing the ladies carrying baskets over one shoulder.  We came across this sweet looking lady that was waving us over for coconuts and I really wanted to take a photo with her, so I bought a coconuts which she pulled out her handy machete…and chopped the top off for me and put a straw in.  It was really great!

War Remnants Museum

Now Vanessa and I are both seasoned travelers and have done a lot of travels on our own.  We were not in hunt for the war museum.  We had a map in hand and were walking in the right direction.  Too bad we got sidetracked with a cute little shop and missed our turn.  It was kinda my fault as I was the one navigating this time, but between drinking my coconut, making silly conversation and laughing too much with Vanessa and then this fun little store, we missed it.  Oh well, that set up back about 30 minutes as we had to find another street.  Funny enough, we couldn`t find street signs and looked up and saw what may be a museum and walked towards it.  Ended up it was a school.  War Museum/school…same thing (well in Cambodia it was!).

Finally we came across the museum, but had to seriously think about stopping for a happy hour at a bar but decided we needed more culture and the museum it was.  I`m really glad we made it there as it was very interesting to see.  This museum had all sorts of photos, stories and other items to exhibit the crimes and aftermath of the Vietnam war (or as they called it there…The American War).   We saw photos from the front lines of fighting, locals, families, death and the aftermaths of Agent Orange.

Reading more about Agent Orange brought back memories of high school as I remember that was my topic for a large report.  What really hit me seeing the photos was how much Agent Orange is still effecting people today. There were photos of children that were born a few years ago that are still underdeveloped (missing toes, with miniature legs or shortened arms) as the parents were effected by it.  It was very sad to see photo after photo.  Really made Vanessa and me think how anyone could have used such a chemical and who thought it was safe. We saw the what the POW camps looked like and the “Tiger Cages” where people were chained up.  All in all, it was a moving day seeing all the images and knowing what happened and brought back all the history I learned about the war years ago…but now brought the other sides perspective to it.  I feel like I have a more balanced view on the war.

So after this depressing visit, Vanessa and I were ready to walk back to our hotel and take in the rush hour traffic.  We were brave.  What I didn`t realize in HCMC, the sidewalks do not belong to people walking.  These are also known as short cuts for motor cycles.  We were walking on the sidewalks and motorbikes were coming up behind us and honking at us.  It was crazy and I finally turned to one and said something.  He understood…but yelled back at my in Vietnamese.  It was tough as walking on the sidewalk you have to avoid the parked motorcycles, the people sitting on stools, random food carts and then motorcycles trying to run you down.  It was really silly!

Next morning we flew to Nha Trang, a beach town north.  Our goal was a lot of sun and beach time before Vanessa had to desert me and go home.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain almost the whole time.  We didn`t know we were entering raining season (we thought it was just ending).  Whoops!

So we made the most of it and went for one of the most amazing spa treatments.  It was a 2.5 hour session of Steam Room (this time is was a real steam room), then oil massage, mud wrap – which they covered and rubbed in mud all over us, and then let it dry.  My skin felt so soft.  Another great deal as all this was $36 and a great way to avoid the rain.  We were lucky to find one afternoon of sun and hit the pool – yet we were the only ones there.  So it was nice and very hot to be in the sun.

The Mud Baths 

Nha Trang is famous for thermal mud baths, and since we were there, we figured we should try.  I`m so glad as this was one of the best outings.  After a crazy drive there, over bumpy dirt road, 10 km out of town, we finally got there and decided to get our own private mud baths.  Everything there was a process from changing to our swimsuits, to pre-shower, to watching them pipe in fresh, hot mud (sounds great huh?), to soaking up the mud and then being little kids and playing in the mud.  We had a silly time pouring mud all over, and we thought it was a good idea to pour it in our hair…why not?

After we had enough of the mud, we got to rinse it off, and then walk into power showers that squirt powerful jets of water all over us.  I guess these were made for locals as they were really short and I had to kneel to have the water hit more than my waist.  If this wasn`t enough, then they told us to soak in hot mineral water.  Now I love hot tubs, really hot showers, but I will say this mineral water was scalding and took a long time before we could get in.

Finally, we were off to the mineral water waterfall and two swimming pool.  We thought the pools would be cool, but they were quite hot and after 2 hours at the mud baths, we had enough. Really fun activity.

The next day, Vanessa deserted me (as I kept saying to make her feel bad and hope she would change her ticket to stay longer).  We had a great time and I really don`t think I`ve laughed as much as I did with her.  This trip marks 10 years of friendship as we met traveling in Greece in 1998 and have remained great friends and visited each other a few times already.  Where will be travel to in 2018?

Once Vanessa deserted me, I decided to stay in Nha Trang for a few more days so I could scuba dive and relax.  The past 6 weeks were amazing with Debbie and Vanessa joining me, but after that long with friends and no break in between, I needed some time to catch up on my logistics for planning and keeping this all in prospective.

The scuba diving was great and saw lots of bright colors and poisonous fish.  My dive master told me there were more poisons fish in this part of the world and be careful not to touch anything.  He almost swam right into a very poisonous one, but lucky he didn`t as it would have ended my dive and sent him to the emergency room fast.

Hanoi

So I fly to Hanoi in hopes of figuring this visa issue out at the airport or in town, but alas, no luck and since my one day there was Sunday, no Embassy was open to help.  So I braved all the rain and cruised the city.  Not too much interested me in the city, but I managed to see the big sights:

Temple of Literature 

This was an amazing structure with five courtyards, and lots of buildings.  Since it was pouring rain and everything was outside, it was a fun game of dodging the puddles, checking it out and avoiding all the stupid tourists that can`t walk with umbrellas.  Seriously…how hard it to walk without trying to poke out everyone else eyeballs around you?  I met a young couple from England and had lunch with them.  They are traveling for 2 months and we caught up on destinations over noodle soup and had a great old time.  They suggested I go see the Water Puppets as that is a traditional show only in Hanoi.  So after lunch I was off to try to get a ticket.

Water Puppets 

First – nothing is easy in foreign countries. When I tried to buy a ticket for the next showing, I was told it was sold out, and all the afternoon sessions were sold out, only 9:30pm.  Too late for me as I`ll be in route to the airport.  I couldn`t believe there weren`t any tickets, and as a single, it`s easy to find one seat.  So I waited at the door and asked if anyone had an extra ticket to sell.  I felt like I was at the baseball game trying to scalp a ticket.  I asked tour guides thinking maybe they had cancellations and wanted to pocket some cash.  No luck.  Then I saw these two girls trying to get tickets like me, and were told to go to the box office (where I started) and then they came back and just purchased tickets.  I asked them and they said they just walked up and purchased them.  I was furious as why wouldn`t they sell to me?  I started asking the ticket taker (who I asked earlier).

After much fuss from me, they sold me a ticket.

Now…was all that effort worth it…think so.

The show was a puppet show and the puppets were all in a pool of water.  There was live music of drums, flute and singers that were narrating the show.  I would say it was kinda silly, but since it was traditional and special to this area, I`m glad I got to see it.  It was a different kind of entertainment.  At the end, the puppet people came out from behind the curtain, and they were wading in the water to their waist the whole time controlling the puppets on sticks, so that was neat to see.

Local Market 

Crazy market!  Full of raw meat that ladies were slicing up.  Veggies, spices, fruits and of course, the motor cycles driving right down the walkway honking at the people walking.  There was no room for people, let alone a motor bike.  Nuts!

Money

I have to talk about the money here….It`s called Vietnamese Dong.  So all we keep saying is “how much DONG was that”  Makes me think of the movie Sixteen Candles and long duck dong.  It`s really kinda crazy as the exchange rate is 16,500 dong to a dollar, so when I go to the ATM, I have to pull out 2 million Dong and that`s the most you can take out and that is only about $160.  Nutty.

The end of Vietnam…  

I planned to stay in Vietnam for another week and travel north to Hoi An and then Halong Bay before flying to Beijing to meet Gina and Ben, but I was unsuccessful at changing my round the world flights.  It really sucked as when I called the airline, I couldn`t get a supervisor on the phone to work with me (as I know I can change the date with no problem.  That`s the whole point to a RTW ticket).  Every time I called I spoke to the front line person and they said no changes once I started to travel, I explained the ticket, and my rights and asked for a supervisor.

Unfortunately, the phone went dead soon after I was on hold for a minute and after 5 attempts at this, I finally gave up  and realized I need to be on my original flight on November 2nd.  Only problem is my next flight is to China and I need a Visa.  I tried to get this in Bangkok and had a problem entering Thailand on my American passport and then applying for my China Visa as a Canadian (as it was $100 less).  That didn`t matter as I would have time in Hanoi to get the visa…so I thought.

So I have one full day in Seoul, Korea on Monday, so I plan to be there when they open, get a one day rush Visa and them make my flight at 6pm.  Hope it works…or the rest of my RTW ticket will become void.  Yikes!

Vietnamese Food

I think Vanessa and I ate better than ever!  Every place we ate out, was just amazing and had to make my list below for places to eat while in Nha Trang.  We had typical dishes with lots of fresh seafood, including the first place where we got to select our fresh seafood from out front of the restaurant and they grilled it up.  I had lobster, Vanessa had scallops and oysters.  So great.  On top of the taste, all the food is very light.  Not oily, not heavy, so it`s easy to eat and lots of veggies with each dish (well veggies in Vietnam means onions, which is not my favorite, so I learned to always say no onions in hope they would put other veggies in, which they normally did).

LOGISTICS:

Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon Comfort Hotel – (84 8) 8376516

www.saigoncomfort.com

This was another simple hotel for flash packers.  We had a nice room with private bath/AC and it was right in the part of town with all the action, yet on a quieter mini street.  This was $30 a night.

Restaurant

Quan an  ngon825-71791

38 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia

This was a recommendation as well and one of our favorites.  The set up was outdoor garden and all around the perimeter, there were different cooking station and each cook had one dish.  It was fun to walk around and see it all.  The menu was completely overwhelming and everything sounded great.  We just started ordering and hoped we liked it and we did.  Only challenge, we ordered a crab in spicy sauce and it was really hard to crack and eat and still be the dainty girls that Vanessa and I are.  Tasty as ever though.  I would make this a must stop for anyone. Nha TrangRestaurant

Lac Tahn 058 821391

44 Nguyen Binh Khiem

This was listed as a dinner experience you won`t forget – and it was.  I would go again, but only in clothes you don`t mind getting smoky.  The down and upstairs were packed – good sign for the food and value.  The draw here was we got to BBQ the food ourselves at our table.  We were one of only a couple tourists there as most were locals (good sign).  I would say think of Korean or Japanese BBQ and it was similar.  The food was great as we cooked up giant prawns, chicken and beef.  Interesting enough, the wait staff will not remove any plates or beer bottles till you are done.  It`s almost a status symbol to see which table had more beer bottles on and under the table.  The table next to us had easily 30 and still have a case of new beer waiting for them on the floor.  The beer was only 8,000 VND per bottle ($0.50).  What large restaurant can you get beer that cheap?

Truc Lihn 2 (there are 3 of the same).

18 Biet Thu St

This was one of the best meals Vanessa and I had.  Fresh fish out front to choose and then have it BBQed for us.  The highest level of service, as we almost had our own table attendance nearby to refill our wine and water.  I don`t seen service like this since eating in some fancy places in New York.  Plus the food was amazing and the prices were so reasonable.  I have been back again since Vanessa left me.

Laterns84 58 471674

72 Nguyen Thien Thuat St

Last dinner Vanessa and I had in town – yet I also have returned on my own.  Great hot pots and seafood.

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