3/24/2018 – 4/24/2018
Ahhh, Vietnam! For the most part we’ve had a fantastic time here and I think I gave a pretty good indication of that in my last post about Hoi An specifically. But given that we spent a total of 30 days in the country, of course, it wasn’t all about this quaint little city. Nor was it all good. But more about that in a bit. During our month in Vietnam, the most we could do on a 30 day visa and a 90 day visa was a bit excessive both in price and the amount of time we wanted to spend in this country, we also hit Saigon / HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City), Da Nang, and the island of Phu Quoc.
We started in Saigon as it was an easy place to fly into and we wanted a taste of this historic city. During our time in Saigon we had the opportunity to check out the local street markets which were a great time! We happened to be staying in a hotel which was essentially right across the street from a night market that allowed us to sample not only a great slice of Saigon nightlife but also start diving into some of the local foods. Also while we were in Saigon we took advantage of the uber low-cost massage options as well as the plentiful manicure and pedicure options. Granted none of these were of great quality and the massage that I had at least was questionable as to the ultimate intentions (yes, I made sure it stayed strictly a legit massage) they were all fun in their own way and so very, very cheap!! In my earlier post about Hoi An I mentioned how powerful the American dollar is thanks to not only the exchange rate but also the general income of most of the locals and this turned out to hold true throughout Vietnam. But here, for things like nail and massage, there are so very many options that the prices are pretty cutthroat and it’s definitely a buyers market! So with that, we got to sample many different foods and services for ridiculously low prices! It’s clear to see why a large number of expats have and are moving to Vietnam in general.
Oh, and before I forget, the traffic is ridiculous! While we noticed it in most places in Vietnam starting out in Saigon really put it into sharp focus. There are precious few stop lights or stop signs and in any even when present they seem somewhat optional. I never got up the nerve to rent a scooter even though I’ve put many a mile on two-wheelers back in the states but I did on more than one occasion take advantage of the local Grab service. Grab is much like Uber back home where you can summon a ride via the app but here at least you have the option to select a scooter as well as a car. And what a hoot!! Being on the back of one of these with a knowledgeable local driver is an adrenaline ride on par with any roller coaster I’ve been on in the states. Road rules are for all intents and purposes nonexistent and traffic just kinda flows in an organic fashion. You’ll see scooters going the wrong way in traffic, driving on sidewalks, cutting across multiple lanes of traffic… it’s unnerving sometimes to watch but actually getting on the back and trusting is quite a thrill. Oh – and just for the record, I think that despite the seeming craziness these folks are excellent drivers. I only remember seeing one accident in our month in Vietnam and it was minor. Not saying they don’t happen but particularly in the city I think it’s difficult to get up enough speed to do serious damage so mostly it’s just scrapes and bumps.
Also a cheap thrill, crossing the road! No, seriously, here is a walk of faith. Traffic is simply not going to stop for you and much like traffic lights and stop signs you’ll rarely see a crosswalk light. And again, it’s never strictly given priority by the traffic anyways. So what do you do? You start walking and don’t stop. Don’t flinch. Don’t pause, deviate from your path, or be unpredictable. Actually, that’s probably the most important thing, be predictable, and the traffic just flows around you. Very truly almost horrifyingly nerve-wracking the first couple of times you do it but we quickly found that when we were unstopping and predictable that everything went smoothly. The first couple of times we started across the road and stopped or changed our pace that’s when everyone started swerving and slamming on brakes and getting a bit upset with us. Just start walking and no joke, everyone just parts around you. There are exceptions of course, namely buses, but for the most part as bizarre as it might seem just start and don’t stop for anything!
Let’s see, also in Saigon is the War Remnants Museum. I’m not going to get into the politics or morality of whether we should have been here or not but talk about feeling dirty and guilty as an American, wow! They don’t pull any punches in the museum and while like with anything else there are different sides to every story this place if nothing else gives a pretty clear view of what the Vietnamese think of our presence here during that period. There is an amazing contrast in my mind between how the Vietnamese people act towards us as Americans in their country today versus how they felt about our presence for the roughly 20 years we were here until 1975. And also a note, no matter how you feel about the war and our part in it there were some horrible things done in the name of war that affected many, many civilians (yes, I know it was almost impossible to tell friend from foe) and still affects them to this day. Lasting effects from the defoliants affected generations after the war meaning that children not even born until well after hostilities had ended bore a huge burden for a war that ended well before they were even conceived – true innocents paying the price. I’m not going to dwell on this particular aspect but it’s really hard to ignore completely after a visit to the Remnants museum, no punches pulled nor censorship to hide the ugly facts. Also, after reflecting on the brutality of this particular war I think I have a bit more of an appreciation for the ailments, especially psychological, that the Vietnam Vets came home with. Getting dark, time to move on.
While we were in Saigon we took a night off if you will and visited the Mekong Delta for an overnight homestay there. This was a fantastic, very authentic feeling homestay with a local family and excellent guide who was born and raised in the area. More about that specific tour here – Mekong Delta Tour.
But after our Mekong diversion, we found ourselves back in Saigon for a few more nights and another dose of the city but a different area. A lot of the ‘same same but different’, a neat term we heard quite a few times during our time in Vietnam and common enough of a localism to be offered on t-shirts, we did enjoy our second round of this fun city. And while it was a lot of the same we did also work in a cooking class with a famous TV chef and I did a solo tour by myself.
Why a solo tour you might be wondering? Because I knew DJ would hate it but I just had to do this one. And what would DJ hate? Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, an integral part of the Vietnamese resistance to American forces. These tunnels, they are tiny! There are a couple of different options for this tour. The most common, the ones that most of the tour operators push, are a subset of tunnels that are purpose-built for tourists and were never actually part of the wartime tunnel system. The tunnels I opted to visit solo were and are still connected to the 250km or so of tunnels that run through the Cu Chi region. And while they’ve been widened a bit to facilitate tourists, who are for the most part noticeably larger than the average Vietnamese, they are still much closer to the real thing than you’ll find elsewhere. And in at least one section, which I distinctly remember, there has been no enlargement and woof! I’m not at all claustrophobic but I really don’t know if I could do that for more than a couple of hours, much less the days and weeks that many Vietnamese spent essentially living in these. And much like the War Remnants Museum I covered above there is a very anti-American slant to this tour that is completely at odds with how nice the guides and the rest of the staff were to me and everyone else. And let me just say that as an American who has visited quite a few countries over the last 12 years or so, some of which also weren’t always on great terms with, I’ve never felt this odd before. Again, everyone extremely nice but the writing and videos are a bit hard to take in as an American even though I was 9 at the end of the war.
Let’s see, from Saigon we made our way to Hoi An which I talked about a bit in a different post. What a great time that was and a truly warm experience with our hosts at Louis Villa Hoi An.
After Hoi An we spent a few days in Da Nang because, well, we had too. An old inside joke with a former co-worker that doesn’t bear explanation here but also the city we’d be flying out of so why not. Essentially this was a smaller, calmer version of Saigon with a nice riverfront area. We enjoyed our time here and our exploration of the riverfront especially. Quite obviously the place where the locals hang out in the evenings, likely because of the coolness as well as the beauty of the bridges. Here you can find the Dragon Bridge, quite a sight, as well as some lesser bridges which may or may not have a cool name like Dragon Bridge but are beautiful in their own right. One of the things we noticed and thought was pretty cool on our first night visit to the waterfront area was the presence of so many children and so many things FOR the children. Play areas, electric cars, magnetic fishing ponds – all sorts of fun activities for the kiddos ready to rent for the evening. And while I don’t know this with certainty I think the reason for this is the lack of space in the average Vietnamese home in the city. Very small for the most part and likely wouldn’t be able to set up or store some of these larger toys thus a market is born!
We also happened into a couple of clearly expat centric bars and restaurants while in Da Nang. By this point we’d had a pretty good sampling of Vietnamese food and were ready to get back to some western tastes. That had us hitting both American Burger as well as a neat little place called N Pub, both within less than a minute of our hotel.
Now our time in Vietnam as you might have noticed has been pretty rockin! We’re having a great time and our only complaint along the way has been the heat. Can’t be helped and we’ve learned to hang indoors for the most part during the hottest part of the day, no worries. While we originally didn’t even have Vietnam on our radar as a place to visit we’ve been so happy with our decision to give this country a try! But somewhere along the way we decided we’d had enough of city living for a spell and, having heard a little about a Vietnamese Island called Phu Quoc, decided to head on over as we had time on our Visa. In all of our travels since we left the states last November we’ve made few decisions of where to visit or how long to stay in an area that we regretted – Phu Quoc pretty much ruined that score!! As soon as we arrived we had an inkling that we’d made a judgment error. We hadn’t really done much research, relying mainly on a tidbit or two we’d heard via word of mouth and trusting that hey, it’s an island, it’s gonna be great! Wrong. Seriously, and we’ stuck ourselves there for 10 days.
So Phu Quoc from our perspective. There is a tremendous amount of activity going into making this a destination for future visitors. Everywhere we looked there was ongoing construction and improvements to existing buildings. But it’s not there yet. And, here’s the best or worst part if you will, the place is pretty filthy. We’d noticed a different sanitation level if you will in our other travels through Vietnam. Litter and street trash is pretty much the norm. Phu Quoc, however, took it to a different level. And while we went here because it was an island and hey, beaches right, there was no way we were going into the water after we’d spent a few hours looking around. Just way too much floating in the water. And to be honest we have our suspicions about the waste treatment infrastructure. Now regardless of whether these speculations about the water quality were warranted or not over the 10 days there either one or, at times, both of us was sick in an intestinal way. That is not something we’ve had a problem with at all in our travels to date and while we can’t pin it on anything specifically – could have been our room, the water, the food, don’t know – the fact of the matter is that we were pretty miserable there. And for the record, once we moved on to Thailand we immediately both cleared up.
Vietnam was, on the whole, a great experience and as I mentioned one that originally wasn’t even on our radar. Despite how things ended (no pun intended!) we had a very positive experience in the country. So much so that Hoi An is a candidate for a re-visit and an extended stay of around three months at some point in the future! With even a little discretion you can make the American dollar go a long, long way. Granted the transportation from the other side of the world isn’t cheap but once in country, wow!!