Tag Archives: Vietnam

Sai Gone, Ho Chi Minh Now

To say the least, Vietnam has not been our favorite country.  Hoi An and Da Nang were nice, but the food is bad, and the cities are very nondescript.  Square buildings, unexceptional landmarks, just not exciting.  The redeeming factor is that the Vietnamese people are very nice.  

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We made our way to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, expecting a modern city.  We were told by people in Hanoi that Hanoi was the old city and Ho Chi Minh was the modern city.  We were expecting it to be different.  It had less interesting little streets and shops than Hanoi, but more indoor restaurants, cleaner streets, and acceptable food hygiene.  Our first day we went to see a few sights around the city.  Our first stop was the Reunification Palace.  We were expecting a pretty building, but it turned out to be a plain old 70’s style bit of architecture.  That was disappointing.  

At least we found a decent place for lunch.  Luckily, the place we found in the guidebook was closed, so we were wandering aimlessly and found a busy restaurant and pulled up some chairs.  We found Bahn My, and it was really good, for Vietnam taste standard.  But, we found it!  

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There was a propaganda store that we were interested in checking out, so we found that after lunch.  It was a store with a bunch of plastic stuff.  Stuff like change purses, bags made from rice sacs, plastic magnets, and stuff, tons of stuff.  Ugh…

Then, we found the Ben Tanh Market.  This turned out to be a large indoor market with tons of vendors selling their wears.  Kind of like Ho Chi Minh City’s version of a Grand Bazaar.  The interesting part about this market were the vendors.  They were so unenthusiastic about selling their goods.  They would call out to you, without even looking at you, and with no energy in their requests for you to, “please buy something”.  Others were simply sleeping in their stalls, sprawled atop their goods, with something laying across their face.  It was kind of a sad place.

That night we found the movie theatre and saw Wreck It Ralph.  It was a really good movie.  But, it says something that we’ve seen two movies in the past week and a half while we’ve been in Vietnam, and they weren’t even local movies.  We just don’t have enough to do in these cities.  I don’t know, maybe we missed something.


The next day we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  Upon entering the minibus for our tour, our guide commented on Seth’s beautifully white skin, and eventually dubbed him with the Vietnamese name of Mr. Rao, due to Seth’s current beard (Rao means hair).  Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly, and light hearted.  All necessary for where we were going.  The Cu Chi Tunnels were made in the 1940’s for their war against the French and used, again, during the Vietnam and American War.  The tunnels are an elaborate labyrinth of small passageways dug underground to survive the air raid bombings.  The entire region was littered with booby traps and tunnels to evade the enemy.  The explanation video was a one sided documentary of the Vietnam and American War and told of the many war heroes who earned ‘American Killer’ medals of honor.  Luckily, the guide who debriefed after the video and the guide who brought us around the grounds were more well rounded in their version of the war and understood that there were two sides to every story.  They knew that the Vietnam War was not a war that the people wanted to fight.  I’m not saying that the Americans aren’t to blame for mass destruction of the country, but, once again, there are two sides to every story.  Either way, it was eerie scooting through the tunnels, sometimes having to crawl, and to see the different types of booby traps was somewhat unnerving.  They were quite innovative in their methods of defense, but I kept thinking about all of the people who found their death with those traps.  And obviously, the traps were a form of defense, so…  It’s difficult to talk about a war and to walk the grounds of a major war zone.  At one point during the tour there was a big tank that we were able to take photos with.  I thought it was one of the Russian tanks given to the Vietnamese to use, but Seth, more knowledgeable about such things, pointed out that it was a US tank that was probably a coffin to a few US soldiers.  That was when I decided I was done walking around the area.

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That happened before we participated in the coolest part of the tour.  We were able to shoot big guns!  We chose to shoot an M60 machine gun and an AK47.  The M60 was fun, and the AK felt very similar to Seth’s AR15 at home!


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That evening we went to a German Brewery that we had driven past earlier in the day.  Though the sausages were decent, the beer was large, cold, and delicious.

Afterwards we stopped by an ice cream shop, and had a treat of coconut ice cream in a coconut. Yum!

Today we fly back to Bangkok.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a beach city.  The waves steadily roll to the coast and the lazy ambiance rolls along as well.  Our first night in Da Nang we went for a walk along the beach.  Locals smiled and waved, and were excited to practice their English by saying, “hello”.  The feel of the area was instantly different from the moment we set foot in the airport.  Even driving from the airport to the hotel, we noticed the change in cleanliness.  The streets were clean, and the restaurants set forth an appearance of good hygene. Eventually we decided that dinner was in order.  There was an enticing entry in our guidebook with mention of house brewed Czech style beer and local cuisine.  How could we resist?  So, we hopped in a cab and made our way to the Tulip Brewery and Restaurant.  The golden steins of cold, frothy beer were exactly what we desired after a long, hot beach walk.  We were, also, able to sample local cuisine.  We ordered plates like a seafood salad that you eat on shrimp rice crackers, a whole seasoned chicken that you dunk into a spice mixture with lime and green glutinous rice, and a seafood and mushroom dish with noodles.  All were fairly tasty, but went well with our giant mugs of beer, unless you are Sandra and I’d say giant mug of beer.  After our long day of travel, heat, dinner, and beer we called it a night, and took advantage of our satellite TV and cushy beds.

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Our next day, we began with a trip to the Marble Mountains, which holds caves and temples.  There are shrines set to the budda set within the mountain and the light that came through on our cloudy day proved to create an eerie light and a marvelous sight.  This cave was way more amazing than Amazing Cave on Halong Bay.  And there were barely any tourists to obscure the view, mainly locals with offerings.

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We, then, hopped in a car to spend the day in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An Old Town.  The streets that radiate out from the central market are filled with handicraft shops, boutiques, and cafes.  The architecture is inspired by the Chinese and Japanese who used to frequent this once bustling port town.  Now it booms with the assistance of a steady tourist crowd, but there is a healthy mix of locals to remind you that you are still in Vietnam.  It is a quaint little town that lit up in the evening.  Situated along a river, Hoi An made a perfect place to experience our first full moon festival of our trip.  Children and old women sold paper lanterns that you could lower into the water for a small price.  The evening was lit up by the large, bright moon, the colorful lanterns in storefronts, and the flames of lanterns illuminating the river way.  Outside shops you could find offerings of rice, fake money, fruit, alcohol, cigarrettes and anything else that may please the gods.  

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While in Hoi An we tried the local dish of Cao Lao, thick noodles of yellow color said to get their flavor from the ash and water from the local well.  Served with pork, veggies, and a bit of broth, these noodles are best when accompanied by some chili sauce.  It was a step up from some of the other Vietnamese food we’ve had. We were happy to have some new flavors, but are still not too impressed by the Vietnamese food.  There were, also, some wontons and crab, but the best food of the day occurred i the evening.  We were searching for bahn my only to find that it only means sandwich, and weren’t impressed with our options, when we came across a line of food stalls that looked intriguing.  A man approached us and explained to us as we walked that the food stalls were all the same.  A group of 35 families work together in this line of stalls.  They all have the same menu and take turns pulling in customers.  It sounded like a really neat idea, and fell into the category of what we’d expect from a socialist nation, so we pulled up a bench and dug in.  We all ordered what he had recommended.  We began with a seafood, tomato, mango, and onion salad atop a crispy, rice cracker (think ceviche or nachos).  For our main we ordered shrimp, lemongrass, and onion mixture, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, served with the spice and lime mixture and rice.  All washed down with some good local beer and it was the best meal we’d had, yet.  

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We had a successful day in Hoi An of local cuisine, shopping and even a festival.  Now we’re on our way to the modern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

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Good Morning Vietnam!

We woke up for our first full day in Hanoi with a knock on our neighbor’s door.  Sandra has come to travel with us, and it’s so exciting!  We started off our day with breakfast in our hotel, and some Vietnam planning, before we finally made our way out to see the town.

Our first stop was to Hoan Kiem Lake.  We walked around the lake before stopping at a lakeside cafe for some Vietnamese coffee.  Vietnamese coffee consists of a strong, dark coffee, with a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom.  You can walk down any street in Hanoi and find people absently stirring their coffee to integrate the thick, sugary syrup.  It’s delicious.  

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We continued around the lake before trying to find the French quarter of Hanoi.  We’re not exactly sure if we found it, but we found loads of streets filled with shops for tourists and locals alike.  One stop we made was to grab an avocado shake.  I’m not sure if it was avocado in my thick, green beverage, but it was tasty nonetheless.  

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Afterwards we found the Water Puppet Theatre.  It was an interesting show where the stage was a large pool of water, and the puppets emerge from the water and are controlled by puppeteers wading offstage.  The little puppets are accompanied by live traditional music and the whole show displayed traditional ceremonies and cultural traditions of the Vietnamese people.  It was actually really interesting.

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After the show, Sandra noticed that she had grown a wart during the duration of the show.  Apparently puppets cause warts.  In any case, we needed to find a pharmacy to remedy that.  We found a pharmacy and tried first in English, hand gestures, and by showing them the wart.  They had no idea what we wanted.  Our Lonely Planet phrasebook was useless (and seems to be in many situations).  We found the word for wart on google translate or something like that.  We pointed to her thumb and said ‘cam’ which is what it said was the word for wart.  We showed her the spelling, and she laughed.  She said, “This is pharmacy. Only sell medicine [laughs] not rice”.  Awesome.  We were asking for rice.  Fun times while trying to converse with locals.  We ended up having better luck at an herbalist who gave Sandra little pink stickers to cure her ailment, and it worked.  And she was left with a pretty pink dot.

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We made our way back to the hotel to freshen up, because we had a Thanksgiving dinner to attend.  Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday and we found a place to enjoy a, mostly, traditional turkey dinner at a fancy French restaurant in Hanoi.  

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The next day we checked out the Ho Chi Minh Memorial and the one pillar pagoda.  We were kind of conflicted when we were there, because we’re not exactly Ho fans.  But, then again,  we’re being supportive by just entering the country, so…  Maybe if the building were prettier, less concrete slab more ornate beauty, we may have felt better about it.  And we found out that the one pillar pagoda was a smaller replica of another pagoda.  Wah wah…

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Then we went to the Temple of Literature.  The Temple of Literature was the first university to open in Vietnam.  We happened to visit on graduation day, so there were groups of students dressed nicely, taking pictures.  There were lucky turtles to rub and shrines to pay homage, and of course, the compulsory souvenir shops.

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We were trying to find some Vietnamese food for lunch that, also, looked like it wouldn’t send us to the hospital.  The majority of places to eat in Hanoi are street stalls, where meals are sold, cleaned, cooked, and eaten either directly on or within inches from the street, and car and foot traffic.  Needless to say, the street food does not seem as safe in Hanoi as it was in Bangkok.  We found an actual restaurant with an indoor kitchen and ordered some food and drinks.  We didn’t get what we thought we ordered, and all came with the same sweet, vinegar dipping sauce.  It was all fairly bland.  

After more meandering, we decided that a movie night was in order.  The guide book boasted of a great cineplex in Hanoi, so we made our way there to see Skyfall, the new 007 flick.  I’m sure I drove Seth and Sandra crazy with all my noises of excitement and surprise.  It was like sensory overload for me, not having seen an action movie on a big screen for such a long time.  Just about everything amazed me.  Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to begin our Halong Bay adventure.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s stunning beauty of limestone karst formations that rise vertically up from the calm turquoise water.  The hazy weather we had during our overnight stay on the bay only accentuated the eerie quality of the area, with large formations materializing through the mist.  

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The tour company picked us up from our hotel and brought us the three hours to Halong City.  It was an extremely bumpy ride, and I think it was due more to the shocks of the minibus than the roads.  Our cabins onboard the ship were quite fancy for a boat, I thought.  The first order of business on the boat was lunch.  They served us a spread of bland, Vietnamese dishes.  I don’t think Vietnamese food is for us.  Soon thereafter, we hopped onto a smaller boat to take us to the floating city.  We boarded a little rowboat with a member of the floating city, and went for a trip around the neighborhood.  It was a pretty interesting place.  Even though they live in the middle of the bay, floating on the water, they still have some modern conveniences.  We saw that most had televisions and we know that their computers had internet because our phones began picking up their signal and emails were pinging.  All of these modern comforts are powered by generators.  The main source of income for these people are from fishing, which makes sense.  Whether they caught the fish and sold them or caught them and grew them to a larger size, fishing funds this village.  There was also a pearl farm that probably makes money through tourists and their website, as well.

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That evening we were served more mass quantities of bland Vietnamese food.  We even had a ‘cooking demonstration/class’ where we made spring rolls.  Not even those were good.  Maybe it’s not fair that we just came from Thailand where every bite of food is packed with flavor and spices, but the food seems to be lacking any kind of seasoning.  We’re still trying.

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The next morning we went to Amazing Cave.  It was quite large and had interesting limestone formations, and I was amazed at how many tourists they packed into it.  If we had been there with way less people it may have been the type of amazing they were advertising.

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We went back to the boat for lunch.  What?  Breakfast at 8 and lunch at 10:45, too much.  The bay was beautiful with limestone formations jutting from the ocean, but the cruise seemed to highlight meals.  After we filled out our comment cards the trip seemed to be quite rushed to get us off the boat.  We were served an equally unexciting meal and rushed off the boat, only to wait in a parking lot for about 45 minutes, sitting on a curb, for our shuttle bus to take us back to Hanoi.  The bus ride home was equally as bumpy as our ride to the bay, but we made it back in one piece.  

We were not convinced that all Vietnamese food was bad, so Sandra found a recommended place online.  We all ordered a vermicelli rice noodle, greens, and pork dish and were able to add some chili vinegar and spice to help it out a bit.  It was okay.  No real wow factor though.  Dessert was a bit more interesting.  Sandra chose one with fried grapes and tapioca balls (or something like that) and I ordered a coconut cream with purple sweet potato.  Both were pretty good, and definitely were interesting.  Not a bad meal, but hoping for better.  This morning we are flying out of Hanoi and into Da Nang where we can hopefully find some better cuisine!

Moving On…

Seth gave me quite a scare.  A hospital in Thailand is not ideal.  But, they were good enough and after some tough days, he seems to be on the mend, though his culinary experimentation phase has come to a screeching halt (understandably).  

Getting to Vietnam was a two step ordeal.  Due to flight times, we would have to fly from Phuket to Bangkok, and the next day fly from Bangkok to Hanoi.  We had a bag of unused items and souvenirs that we wanted to stash somewhere in Bangkok.  So, once our flight landed, we hopped in a taxi (a metered taxi from the airport) and sped off to a storage facility in the center of Bangkok.  After some confusing back and forth with the driver, who knew about as much English as we know Thai, we got him to agree to wait a minute while Seth dropped off the bag, before heading to our hotel, which was right across from the airport.  I’m not sure what he thought about the whole ordeal, but he seemed to think it was funny.  

What I thought was funny was driving up to our hotel.  Our hotel was disguised as a car wash, and I think it was an undercover no tell motel.  I wish we took pictures, because it was such a funny place.  It was mostly clean, and the bed happened to be one of the most comfortable we’ve had in a while.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but Thailand seems to be notorious for very hard/firm mattresses.  This, mostly clean, bed was much softer.  

We asked the woman at the front desk if there was a shopping mall nearby.  She asked us if IT Shopping Mall was ok, and we said, “sure!”  There have been so many acronyms on our trip and shopping malls tend to be referred to by their acronym.  Who knew that this time the acronym would be so literal in English.  The mall was full of IT gadgets.  It was a mall of adapters, monitors, speakers, phones, and anything else you and your electronics collection may need.  And our dinner options were minimal.  But, we ended up going to a chinese restaurant that had been recommended to us in the past named MK (note the acronym).  It was pretty delicious.  We ordered a mix of noodles and dim sum like foods.  

We woke up at 4:30am to catch our flight to Hanoi.  Unfortunately, when you hail a taxi at odd hours, and not odd hours, there’s a high chance that your taxi driver will be drunk.  We noticed this very quickly.  Even though the ride was only about 10 minutes, we almost got out and walked, because he was bad news.  But, we made it to the airport and from there it was pretty straightforward; long lines, airport employees who don’t make sense, seats with no legroom, and smelly people sitting next to you.

At the airport in Hanoi we grabbed a super cheap sim card for our phone and found our hotel shuttle.  The Landmark Hotel is in the old section of Hanoi.  We walked around a bit and found some interesting lunch of sautéed  veggies.  We’re pretty excited to see Sandra tomorrow!