Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Return to Vietnam

I had planned to write separate posts for “central” and “south” Vietnam but in the interest of time I will combine our final two weeks in the country into one post. My daily log is fairly detailed, so I will just gloss over some of the highlights of these three cities and add my final thoughts on Vietnam as a whole.

Our experience in Hue, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City was a bit different from our time in the north as we did not do any side trips out of the cities. We did visit the royal tombs around Hue on a day trip and I took a cooking class in Hoi An, but otherwise we spent most of our time roaming around on foot and exploring each city at our leisure. The weather wasn’t as kind to us as before; it rained on all but the first day we were in Hue, every day off & on in Hoi An, and it was quite hot & humid in HCMC.

As in the north, we continued to encounter the often-smiling faces of even non-tourist-dependent locals which definitely makes Vietnam feel like one of the friendliest places in the world you can visit. This is in spite of the relatively recent turmoil and continuing hardships the Vietnamese people face. I would have enjoyed more interaction with them, to learn more about their culture and discuss their thoughts about the future, so I am particularly grateful for the fun times we shared with the staff at the Valentine Hotel in Hue.
lunch with the owner & staff of Valentine Hotel
One of my favorite things to do in Vietnam was to sit at an open air restaurant and watch the world go by. It was very easy to be entertained for hours this way, just waiting to see how many people would be piled on the next passing moped (five was the record) or how much “stuff” one moped or bicycle could transport. Sometimes, just observing the locals interacting with other tourists or predicting who would try to sell us something (and what) was a game in itself.
how many baskets can YOU carry on a motorbike???
Another favorite activity (in any country) is to browse the local markets. Even the smallest towns in Vietnam have a market where meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, herbs & spices, rice & noodles and much more are sold fresh daily often alongside cookware, clothing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc. Hue has a huge, very busy market called Dong Ba which is definitely worth a visit. But we randomly came upon a smaller market within the Citadel walls which was much more enjoyable to look around as the locals seemed quite surprised to see us and didn't really try to sell us anything. Hoi An's Old Market has about a 50/50 mix of locals and tourists depending on what time of day you visit and now there are tourist-oriented t-shirts & other souvenirs for sale along with live chickens & ducks. Ditto for HCMC's Ben Thanh Market, which is almost more like a mall (albeit a claustrophobia-inducing one) than a market. Still, it's a great way to observe the locals in action!
carrying a live chicken at the market in Hoi An
Vietnamese food was universally good but often memorably delicious. Our best meals were eaten in Hoi An and were still a fraction of the cost of a gourmet meal in the U.S. While I didn’t get to do very much actual cooking in the class I took, I did learn a lot about the history of and common ingredients used in most Vietnamese dishes. I hope I will be able to replicate some of those tasty treats at home later this year.
16-ingredient barbecued chicken & mango salad by Chef Alethea
That about sums up my favorite things about Vietnam. I would highly recommend a trip here to just about anyone. It is culturally interesting, the scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the value for the dollar is excellent. Plus there are plenty of accommodation & transportation options to suit all types of travelers.

Here are the links to all of my photos:

Hoi An
Ho Chi Minh City

Daily Log

picked up (by hotel) from station after 13hr overnight train from Hanoi; SE1 was not as nice as the Sapa trains, still 4-berth cabin but didn’t look like sheets/blankets/pillows had been washed or floors & walls scrubbed in years, did have Western toilets with toilet paper
More humid here
Staying at Valentine Hotel per recommendation of Hanoi hotel; room 502
Explored this side of the river - no sights just shops, hotels, restaurants, karaoke bars; lots of cyclos offering to take us to Citadel or on city tour
Stopped by Saigon Morin Hotel to inquire about buffet dinner & show; price is 330000 per person not including 10% tax + 5% service fee + drinks, probably a good value but a bit more than we want to pay
Wandered around Big C supermarket and ate pho + draft Huda beer for lunch in the food court
Dinner at L’Aubergine: had 135,000 set menu but it was discounted 20% since we ordered between 5-7pm, good quality, lots of small dishes - crab soup, spring rolls, shrimp pancake wrapped in banana leaf, squid with green beans, some kind of meaty fish, rice, fresh pineapple for dessert

Citadel might be the must “ruined” sight I’ve ever visited - there’s really nothing left to see!
Wandered around town within Citadel walls, stumbled on a big indoor local market, didn’t see another tourist for a couple of hours, climbed up on one of the Citadel gate towers
Lunch at tiny Lac Thuan - banh khoai (Hue specialty pancake); a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, were constantly bothered by people selling paintings, tours, moto-rides, etc. despite the fact we were on a 2nd floor balcony!
Started pouring rain so stayed at restaurant longer, drank another beer and watch pet fish seller and traffic
Stopped at Coop supermarket to buy a few groceries
Walked back to hotel in rain; got soaked so had to take showers
Rested in our room for a few hours
Dinner at Missy Roo - bun bo Hue, Hue spring rolls; had to endure loud Kenny G music throughout dinner

Got up at 8am with no plan for the day due to rainy weather
After eating breakfast, had to scrub Tevas again because they got wet & dirty yesterday; Greg tried to open our hotel room window and one of the panes fell out and shattered
Changed rooms (now in 203); wifi hasn’t been working since yesterday, Greg helped them fix
Talked to reception staff about tours of tombs, pagoda, etc. since the forecast is for rain and don’t want to ride bikes in bad weather; booked day tour by bus & boat for tomorrow
Were planning to leave to go to market but staff invited us to eat lunch with them; ate in dining room with owner, 2 receptionists & 2 cleaning staff - had some kind of fish (maybe smoked?), bitter melon soup, pork (that looked like tofu), eggs, rice, ground peanuts that looked like cigarette ashes, watermelon for dessert; owner wanted us to share his bottle of fermented rice wine - you have to toast every time you drink so everyone drinks together, the 3 of us drank the whole bottle
Sat in lobby drinking green tea and chatting with receptionist; Greg took a nap afterward
I guess they enjoyed our company as we are invited to dinner tonight at 7pm so I’m researching an appropriate gift to bring
Walked to Dong Ba Market (a bit overwhelming as people try to sell you stuff and very crowded plus muddy from rain); bought a pineapple & bulk shelled peanuts as gifts for the hotel staff; then went to Coop Supermarket and also bought a nice box of chocolates
Came back to hotel and went down to dinner at 7pm; just the two of us, plus the owner, one receptionist (Lan), and the owner’s friend Mr Jin(?); ate rice, fried tofu, boiled pork, nuoc mam w/chilis (fish sauce) and, of course, drank more rice wine -- two bottles to be exact! When the owner, Mr Bui Trung Doan, went upstairs to get the second bottle of wine, he came back down in his pajamas!
We had a fun evening (Mr Doan is convinced Greg looks like David Beckham) and they showered us with compliments, said we were now family and also told us we were the first guests to be able to share 2 bottles of the strong wine and not be completely drunk. So much for our clean reputations! ;) They even invited us to eat with them again tomorrow night
Eventually the night security guard came to work and drank a cup or two of rice wine himself; then some random people came over to play cards in the hotel’s dining room
We came up to our room to shower and were in bed by 10pm

1/6 Rain, rain, rain
Ate breakfast at 7am
Hue city tour not clear who operates but the brochure they gave us when we boarded the pink bus said AIIZ and Kim Office I & II; $10 tour to Citadel, Garden House, Thien Mu Pagoda, Buffet Lunch at Stop-n-Go Restaurant, Minh Mang Tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb, Tu Duc Tomb, Conical Hat & Incense Stick Making Village, Dragon Boat cruise on Perfume River; included hotel p/u, English-speaking guide, lunch buffet (no drinks); must pay admission to each site - approx 175,000VND per person total
Picked up for our city tour at 8:15, rode around this side of river picking up other tourists for another 30 minutes, bus microphone didn’t work well - guide was constantly adjusting the connections
Realized we were going to Citadel first so had to waste the first hour of the tour b/c we’d already been and didn’t see a reason to pay to go in again (the itinerary at the hotel had the Citadel near the end of the day)
Bus parked in lot outside Citadel walls so a long walk to Imperial Palace
Left Citadel almost 30min late due to some of the Vietnamese group members “disappearing”
Despite timing that tour guide gave us at start of tour, we always stayed at least 10-20min longer at each place we stopped except lunch, which was shortened to 30min which is not enough time when you have to wait in line 10min for the buffet
Felt rushed the entire day
Tired after fighting the rain all day and walking around the tombs (lots of slippery pathways & steps) so skipped Tu Duc Tomb and conical hat & incense making village
Dragon boat ride is very slow, not worth extra money in my opinion (it was included in our tour)
Drop off at your hotel was NOT included; had to walk from boat dock; brochure mentions watching the sun set from the boat and viewing a fishing village but we did neither
Decided to eat dinner on the way back to the hotel; L’Aubergine again - had crispy battered chicken pieces & fries, Greg had stuffed squid & stir fry veggies
Valentine Hotel review

Hoi An
It rained all night; got up at 6:30, ate breakfast at 7am, ready & checked out in lobby at 8am, waited for bus p/u until 8:40
Small van transferred us to bigger bus; not as luxurious as advertised - old, broken seats, no legroom, no seatbelts, no toilet, load your own bags - but what do you expect for $5 per person?!
Stopped once for 30min break during 3+ hour ride
Arrived in Hoi An but “bus station” is actually a hotel (An Phu); no one there from our hotel to pick us up so eventually had to call and they sent a taxi
Hoang Trinh hotel staff greeted us with hot tea & coconut cookies, settled into our room then ate lunch at the hotel (cao lau)
Went for an exploratory walk in the rain for a couple of hours, stopped on the way back at Lame Café to try the cheap draft beer (3000VND per glass)
Returned to hotel to research restaurants; selected Ly Cafeteria for dinner
One of the best meals we’ve eaten in Vietnam: white rose, wontons, stir fry rice with beef, stir fry noodles with squid & shrimp; also the most we’ve paid for one meal: 290,000VND but that’s still only $15

Slept better than I have in a long time but still not great; the bed is more comfortable than many (and it’s just a foam mattress on a wooden frame)
Excellent breakfast - 3 pages of options, huge fruit plate
Bought Old Town ticket, walked to Handicraft workshop to watch 10:15 music & dance performance
Toured Quan Cong Temple, History & Culture museum; it started raining
Looked at French Colonial houses on Phan Boi Chau street
Crossed bridge to Cam Nam Island, browsed at Randy’s bookstore
Drank beer & rum shot at Sleepy Gecko, watched water buffalo grazing
Ate lunch at Lighthouse Café: bo bittet (steak, French fries, salad); it was excellent - cooked with lots of garlic, rare, almost sweet taste
Started raining again
Walked back across bridge, toured Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, bought bootleg books at 2 different stores
Toured Tan Ky house - short (2-3 minute) presentation about history of house & family, offered complimentary hot tea (gave us less than 1 minute to drink it) then tried to sell us zodiac pendants for 25,000VND
Walked back to hotel, relaxed, ate dinner at the hotel - quang nam noodle (mi quang)
The Vietnamese have a habit of saying “same same but different” to refer to things that may be similar in some ways but different in others

Got up at 7am, ate breakfast, walked to Morning Glory Restaurant for cooking class, drank tea
Toured market, then demonstration/cooking class (Program 3 - Cooking for Special Occasions 3 hrs) - pho, fresh spring rolls, crispy pancake, green mango salad, barbequed chicken; minimal hands on, what was most interesting was Ms Vy’s talk
Back at hotel after 1pm
1hr Aroma healing massage at Hoi An Spa ($15)
Drank cheap bia (the local draft beer) at Lame Café
Dinner at Ganesh - fantastic Indian food: lamb samosas, Ganesh special chicken, palak paneer, tarka dal, steamed rice, garlic naan

Got up at 7:45, ate breakfast
Called Grandmother Smartt on my mobile and talked for about 30min
Checked out of hotel (received small gifts & bottled water); private car took us to Danang airport (45min drive from Hoi An)
Checked in for Jetstar flight but it was delayed by 30min due to late arrival of aircraft
1hr flight to Saigon
Had to wait 20min for taxi company recommended by our hotel; drive to hotel took 30+min in heavy traffic but still only cost $5
Very hot/humid here
Checked into room 503 then went out in search of late lunch/early dinner; our hotel is on a busy tourist street so we made a loop around before settling on a more local-looking restaurant (Saigon 24hr café) with lower prices than many of the tourist-filled places; meal was decent & cheap
Bought beer at convenience store; think the cashier tried to give us fake 10000VND bills so made him swap
Took showers; power went out for about 10min while Greg was finishing his shower (blackouts mentioned in hotel info book)
Noted during dinner that we have seen more overweight Vietnamese people in the past couple of hours than in all of north & central Vietnam

Got up at 7am; ate breakfast (beef pho) w/iced coffee to combat heat
Walked to Thai Embassy to get visas
War Remnants Museum - no lack of anti-American sentiment in descriptions; many photos of people affected by Agent Orange & other chemicals, section titled “Aggressive War Crimes”
Went to Notre Dame church (but it was closed), main post office
Ate lunch at Lang Nuong outdoor café - stuffed squid
Went to Reunification Palace - free 1hr English tour included with admission fee
Walked back to hotel area
Beer & spring rolls at Dunes Café; good people-watching at intersection, negative is being bothered by street vendors who come into restaurants selling sunglasses/lighters, photocopied books, international magazines & newspapers, misc toiletries, knockoff wallets, etc. also beggars
Saw 5 people on a moped
Dinner (pulled pork, cole slaw, potato salad, corn on cob, baked beans) at Wayne’s Texas BBQ (Greg‘s request) - most expensive meal we‘ve eaten in months!
Spotted Karl (whom we trekked with in Sapa) walking on street so he sat down and drank a beer with us
Went to bed at 9pm with migraine (seems to be due to heat, pollution), took Zomig

Got up at 8:30; ate breakfast (omelet) with iced white coffee
Dropped off laundry down the street - priced per kilo there vs. per piece at hotel so much cheaper
Worked on Thailand itinerary for a few hours
Walked to Thai Embassy to retrieve passports
Walked to Jade Emperor Pagoda, then Museum of Vietnamese History - similar contents as Hanoi’s Natural History Museum
Took taxi back to hotel area
Couldn’t find Lotus Café (recommended in To Asia With Love book)
Ate dinner at Cafe333 - massive banh xeo for only 70000VND; there was a commotion on street (not sure what initiated it but sounded like a moto crash), two Vietnamese guys started fighting, police appeared from seemingly nowhere in seconds, all the locals came out of shops/restaurants/homes to watch

Slept in until 9am; ate breakfast (pho w/chicken + iced coffee)
Walked to Ben Thanh Market, then Ton That Dam street market
Lunch at Le Vang - sizzling pork w/vegetables & fried rice
Researched Bangkok hotels - overwhelming number of options and more expensive than we would like
Picked up laundry, had to cut little I.D. tags off of each piece
Dinner at Saigon 24h Café - Vietnamese curry w/chicken

Woke up with migraine in middle of night so took a Relpax and stayed in bed until 9am
Ate breakfast (omelet, iced coffee)
Requested late checkout (1pm instead of noon)
Booked Bangkok hotel and sent inquiry for overnight train to Chiang Mai, researched Chiang Mai accommodations
Took taxi to airport; arrived at 1:30pm
Cleared immigration & security, wandered around for 15min trying to find lounge with Priority Pass access
I stayed in the lounge for an hour, eating pho & other snacks; Greg waited in the departures area then I smuggled him some sandwiches, chips, and a can of beer from the lounge
Flight departed late (as has been the case with all of our flights in SE Asia)
Short 1hr flight but still got sandwich, water & moist towelette

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