20th to 23rd November Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
The journey from Kep in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam seemed endless and we changed buses several times even though we had booked with one company to take us the whole journey. We started off in an old big bus with no air con, crossed the border in a cramped minivan to be herded into a chicken bus squashed into seats with locals and our luggage in the aisles, again with no air con. We must have crossed at least 20 rivers, one by ferry eventually arriving on the out skirts of the city at 11pm at night some 13 hours after setting off.
21st November 2012
Set on well-maintained and spacious grounds, this historic building is a prominent symbol of the country's political history. During the 19th century, the Reunification Hall was the site of the Norodom Palace, former residence of the French governor general. It was later occupied by South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem, and named the Presidential Palace. In 1962, much of the structure was destroyed when Diem's own air force bombed it in a failed assassination attempt. The building was rebuilt soon after, but Diem was killed before he could move in.
Today, the interior remains largely unchanged, with high and wide corridors that open onto cavernous lobbies and reception rooms. The living quarters, built around a sunny atrium, are lavishly furnished with glittering chandeliers and elaborate antiques. Also not to be missed are the elephants' feet in the "presidential gifts display" and the large lacquer-work piece depicting scenes from the Le Dynasty.
In the basement is a bunker and military operations centre, with radio transmitters and maps. Oddly, one of the floors also features a gaming room. Adjoining the Reunification Hall is a park with trees that offers a place to relax There is also a tank which was used to storm the gates for one of the military coup that took place.
War Remnants Museum was Opened in September 1975 shortly after the end of the Vietnam War it is a popular attraction in Ho Chi Minh City.
The atmosphere inside of the newly-renovated museum is hushed and sombre; graphic displays, photographs, unexploded ordinance, and other artefacts show the horrors faced by both sides. The airy, three-floor museum houses around seven permanent exhibits with captions in both Vietnamese and English. American tanks, bombs, and aircraft are on display outside of the War Remnants Museum as well as a mock-up of a POW prison
One of the current exhibits called:Historical Truths: A room containing photographs, propaganda, news clippings, and signboards geared toward showing the wrongdoings of the U.S. government in the 1960s and 1970s. This was particularly interesting to see the Vietnamese view of the war, a side we don't hear very often.
Thursday 22nd November
We took a Day Tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels, the guide was an old gentleman called Minh who spoke good English and had worked for the US during the war as an interpreter, he was very interesting and knowledge.
Chu Chi Tunnels
During the 1960s, the communist guerilla fighters in South Vietnam, or Viet Cong, befuddled American troops by seeming to completely vanish into the jungle, leaving not a trace behind. It took the Americans some time to figure out that the Viet Cong were slipping away into complex tunnel systems located beneath the jungle floor. At any given time, thousands of Viet Cong troops would live inside these tunnel systems, only emerging at night to tend crops, find supplies, or attack the Americans. At some points during the war, the Viet Cong would remain underground for months at a time, not even seeing the sun.
One of the largest tunnel systems was the Cu Chi tunnels, running from the outskirts of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) all the way to the Cambodian border. The whole tunnel system is 75 miles in length and has three distinct stories underneath the ground. During the war, the tunnels were continually expanded as fighting dragged on. Today, the tunnels have been reinforced and expanded for western tourists, and are a very popular destination for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City.
Cao Dai Temple
Constructed between 1933 and 1955, the Great Temple of Cao Dai closely resembles a Christian cathedral in its architecture - two square towers, a long central nave with upper gallery, and side aisles. The altar, an apse and ambulatory are at the opposite end from the entrance, just as in a typical church.
The exterior and interior of the Cao Dai Temple are both extravagantly decorated, incorporating symbols, abstract designs and images of saints. The high ceiling is painted sky-blue with fluffy clouds and the floor tiles have busy patterns. The dragon-encrusted columns that run the length of the nave number 28, representing the 28 manifestations of the Buddha. Seven-headed cobras represent the seven human emotions.
The three principal colours of Cao Dai are yellow (for Buddhism), blue (for Taoism), and red (for Christianity), and these appear in worshippers' robes as well as the temple. The most important symbol is the Divine Eye, representing God, which also appears in followers' homes. It is a left eye, because God is Yang, and Yang is the left side. It has a ying-yang symbol in the pupil.
There are four ceremonies with chanting each day: 6:00 am, noon, 6:00 pm, and midnight. An orchestra of 10 musicians and a choir of 20 youths lead the service in prayer and hymns. The hymns sound western, but the accompanying music is traditional Vietnamese.
One of the most memorable sights at the Cao Dai temple is the sea of worshippers who dress in flowing robes and assemble in orderly rows during a ceremony. Men sit on the right and women on the left. Most worshippers are lay followers, who wear pure white robes. Men with the rank of priest and higher have brightly coloured robes reflecting their spiritual allegiance: yellow (symbolizing Buddhism and virtue), blue (Taoism and pacifism) or red (Confucianism and authority). Bishops and cardinals have the Divine Eye emblazoned on their headpieces.
Visitors are warmly welcomed at the Cao Dai Temple and may watch ceremonies and take photos from the galleries. Visitors are only asked to wear trousers or skirts covering the knee, remove their shoes before entering, and remain as quiet as possible during ceremonies.
24th to 26th November Hoi An
Friday 23rd November
Over night train to Danang, comfy beds in a 4 berth cabin unfortunately the air con was on all night and so it was very cold. We both had bottom bunks and shared with a sprightly old lady and a quiet gentleman. Left at 7pm and arrived at 06:20 the next day. Station is 30 mins from Hoi An, so shared a taxi with several other tourist that we met at the station.
We checked into Dai Long Hotel, comfy double en suite with air con and very substantial solid furniture.
Originally called Faifu, Hoi an was a busy port on the Silk Route. Japanese & French influences are evident. Protected by UNESCO world heritage status, Hoi an still retains it's charm & character.
The surrounding countryside is lush rice fields, islands & fishing nets mirrored in the Bonn River. Hoi an Old Town has top quality restaurants & the western food is of an exceptional standard.
More tourists return every year to stock wardrobes with their own creations made cheaply in Hoi An. Prices are rising but this is still one of the cheapest places to shop on earth!
The tailor shops in Hoi An carry many different fabrics. You will find an array of different colours, patterns, textures & quality of fabric.
Here's some tips to help you shop...
Chill Out - Saving face is very important in Vietnam. Remain calm, shopping can be stressful. We strongly suggest that you do not buy in the first shop you come to. Going slow only costs time - have fun.
Shop Around - Different shops carry different patterns and the 'walk-away' is the best way to find out if you are paying too much. Look for the best fabrics instead of the lowest price. Check out review websites e.g. Trip advisor to see what reviews customers advise think etc
Bring a Photo/ clothes -The shops only have "The Next Catalogue" to show you. You will need to choose cut and style after choosing fabric. Bring fashion magazines, catalogues or photos - show them what you want!
Take Time - Minimum time for one order: 1-2 days. Ideal length of stay for a shopping holiday 4+ days. Some shops are open 7 days a week till 10pm. Remember a Saville Row tailor could have 5 fittings on a new suit order. If you ask them to rush they will. Don't get carried away and blow your wad in the first shop you come to, there may well be a better one around the corner.
2 or 3 Fittings - At the start, explain that you prefer a good job to a fast job, ask for at least two fittings. If they can't do it in 3 you are in the wrong shop, they will hope to complete in one fitting.
Be Clear - Simpler products are cheaper to make - clearly express what you require: type of hem, collar or cuff - fitted or not - how many buttons. Once you throw in patterns, the options are endless.
Eye for Quality - Did they give you what you asked for? Any lumps and bumps in the fabric? Secondary stitching? Re-enforced stress points? There are many ways to cut corners.
If you can't be bothered with the tailors, lots of the shops sell ready made outfits that can then be altered for a small amount of money and within 24 hours. The quality isn't as good but for £60 I bought 3 dresses all of which would have cost me that and more individually in the UK.
Hoi Ann Town lay out: The ancient town is situated on the north bank of the Thu Bon river and covers an area of 0.3km . There is a street running east-west along the river's edge and three further streets parallel to the river. They are intersected at right-angles by streets and alleys. Within this area there are houses (often combined with shops), religious monuments such as pagodas, temples, communal houses, family cult houses, a ferry quay and an open market.
Architecture: The building style of Hoi An combines traditional Vietnamese designs & techniques with those from other Asian countries, whose citizens settled there to trade and built houses and community centres in their own designs. These influences came principally from China, but Japanese styles can also be seen in certain details.
Famous Japanese Bridge: There is an ornate wooden bridge, reminiscent of Japanese examples, with a pagoda on it. It has existed from at least the early 18th century. The Japanese bridge can be found in many local paintings
In between shopping and fittings we managed to see most of the town with it's charming buildings. We spent the evenings eating in restaurants overlooking the river, watching the river taxis and the floating candles, there is definitely an old world charm.
Hue 26th & 27th November
Bus from Hoi An to Hue takes 3.5 hours and cost $5
Checked into Hong Thien No 1 Hotel, it has a swimming pool which is a little luxury. Good area with lots of street vendors. Small room but lots of creature comforts.
To understand Hue in Central Vietnam, it's important to note that this town has played a significant role in Vietnamese history for the past several hundred years. History is what makes Hue what it is: a new town on one side of the Huong River (romantically called the Perfume River), and a collection of old pagodas, imperial buildings, and tombs on the other.
Hue was the former feudal and Imperial capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen Emperors. Before the Nguyens, Hue belonged to the Hindu Cham people, who were later displaced by the Vietnamese people as we know them today.
The book on the Nguyens was closed in Hue, as the last emperor Bao Dai turned over the reins of power to the Viet Minh at the Noon Gate of the Purple Forbidden City in August 30, 1945.
This wasn't the end to Hue's troubles, as the conflict between the Communist north and the capitalist south (what we now call the Vietnam War) turned Central Vietnam into contested territory. The Tet Offensive in 1968 spurred North Vietnam's occupation of Hue, which was countered by South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In the resulting "Battle of Hue", the city was destroyed and over five thousand civilians were killed.
Tuesday 27th November
Visit to the Citadel and several temples finishing with a dragon boat trip down the river.
As a former Imperial capital, Hue is notable for its many royal structures, most notably the Forbidden Purple City, the home of the Nguyen Emperors until 1945. From the early 1800s to Bao Dai's abdication in 1945, the Forbidden Purple City - enclosed by the high-walled Citadel - was the centre of Vietnamese governance and politics.
The Citadel is about 520 hectares in size; its high stone walls and the Purple Forbidden City behind them, once hermetically sealed against outsiders, are now open to the public.
There are plenty of wide open spaces in the Citadel's interior where Imperial buildings used to stand. Most of these were destroyed during the Tet Offensive, but a continuous renovation program promises to restore the Citadel to its former glory.
The Thien Mu Pagoda (also called the Linh Mu Pagoda) is a historic pagoda on the banks of the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. Apart from their scenic riverside and hilltop location, the Thien Mu Pagoda and its environs are also rich in history, standing witness to almost four hundred years of tumultuous nation-building in Vietnam.
Thien Mu Pagoda is set atop Ha Khe Hill, in the village of Huong Long about three miles from Hue city centre. The pagoda overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda exudes a peaceful air, ornamented as it is by pine trees and flowers.
The octagonal seven-level pagoda known as Phuoc Duyen Tower is the most prominent single structure in Thien Mu Pagoda; standing on the crest of the hill, the tower is visible from far away.
But that's not all there is to the pagoda complex. The compound is actually spread out over two hectares of land, with other structures around and behind the tower. In fact, the Phuoc Duyen tower is far younger than the pagoda complex itself; the the tower was constructed in 1844, over two hundred years after the pagoda was founded in 1601.
Wednesday 28 th November Dong Ha and Dong Hoi - DMZ tour.
Today is my Birthday, but I have decided to postpone it a few days until we are in Ha Long Bay as that will be special and hopefully a lot more romantic compared to looking at war stuff, although I do get to ride a motorbike all of today so that's a plus.
Bus to Dong Ha arrived at 9am.
We had researched the DMZ tour and many reviews talked about Mr Tihn and his knowledge and good English etc. he is based at DMZ Café, 88 Le Duan Street, Dong Ha. The bus dropped us off about 50 meters away from DMZ café and we are met by a man on a motorbike who shows us where to go. It is not what we expected, the office is run down and we caught the owners off guard. To this day we do not know if this was the original DMZ Café or a replica, but we had a good day and felt we gained lots of knowledge and experience of the war. The tour was 10 til 4pm we were pillion passengers on the back of two motorbikes. Andy's driver spoke very good English and told him lots of interesting stories and pointed out things along the way, mine on the other hand was the silent type.
We were taken to and shown were the US Naval base and Army base was, but no longer is obviously. We were taken to several bomb sites and explained how the people had lived before the war and how they had lived during the war and how they had died. This was followed by crossing the Bridge across the river and the North/South Vietnam border. We visited the Vinh Moc tunnel were people lived for four years during the war, these were much more substantial than the Chu Chi Tunnels in the South. The most poignant moment was when we visited the National Cemetery, there are rows and rows of little white gravestones, but no names as a lot of the remains are unidentified. It was very moving, especially to find out that remains are still being found and that families are still waiting for closure all these years on.
Bus to Dong Hoi - minivan driven at speed, very bumpy and sometimes squashed but taken directly to our hotel.
Thursday 29th November
Walked along the river to the beach and then just wandered round town. A little off the beaten track so not many tourists, we were stopped a couple of times for our photo and stared at several times. Not much English spoken either. Hotel were very helpful and friendly, nothing was too much trouble. We had a huge room over looking the street and the views of the river.
Caught the overnight train to Hanoi, supposed to leave at 20:08 but delayed an hour.
30th November Hanoi
Overnight train to Hanoi, this time a hard sleeper with six beds, luckily we were on the bottom bunks, unfortunately we did not get much sleep as the people sharing the cabin were noisy and up most of the night. The air con was on in the c cabin but not as cold this time.
Arrived at 06:00, taxi to Camellia Hotel 6. Small, narrow hotel with two rooms to a floor down a small passageway only accessible for pedestrians and motorbikes, of which there are millions in Hanoi. The hotel is based in the Old Town of Hanoi, so lots of hustle and bustle. Room not ready immediately, so we had breakfast at a café down the road. Once we had access to our room we slept until the afternoon.
Hanoi is much cooler, so we had to dig our our warmer clothes good job we did not send them all home from Australia as we had initially thought we might.
Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, lies on the banks of the Red River, some 100 kilometres from its mouth. Human settlements at the place date back as far as the 3rd century B.C.
In 1010 Hanoi, at that time known by the name of Thang Long, became capital of the first Vietnamese dynasty independent from the Chinese. The city received its present name, Hanoi, only in 1831. However, at that time not Hanoi but Hué was the capital of the Vietnamese empire.
In 1882 Hanoi was conquered by a French expedition. In 1883 France forced the then uncolonialized North of the Vietnamese empire to accept the status of a French protectorate. The French administratively divided the country into the colony Cochin China (in the South) and the protectorates Annam (central Vietnam) and Tonkin (North Vietnam). Hanoi became the capital of the protectorate Tonkin.
Vast parts of present-day Hanoi were built during the French colonial occupation. With its broad boulevards and a French-inspired architecture the city has a noticeable structural charm.
The French abandoned Hanoi after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the division of Vietnam into two separate states according to the Geneva Treaty signed on July 20, 1954. Ho Chi Minh made Hanoi the capital of North Vietnam and initially concentrated on the expansion of the city's industry.
During the US bombardments of North Vietnam from March 1965 to October 1968 the authorities evacuated 75 % of Hanoi's population. After the end of the bombardments the city again grew rapidly. Today the population of Hanoi counts more than 3 million.
We walked to Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Bon Temple on the lake. We stopped at the National theatre by chance and they are currently shown a Water Puppet performance, which is a Lonely Planet must do. We book tickets for the next performance. It was very interesting the puppets are all on long sticks operated by people behind the scenes all of which takes place on water.
1st to 3rd Dec Hay long Bay and Cat Ba Island
The bay consists of a dense cluster of over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Đầu Gỗ (Wooden stakes cave) is the largest grotto in the Hạ Long area. French tourists visited in the late 19th century, and named the cave Grotte des Merveilles. Its three large chambers contain large numerous stalactites and stalagmites There are two bigger islands, Tuần Châu and Cat Ba, that have permanent inhabitants, as well as tourist facilities including hotels and beaches. There are a number of beautiful beaches on the smaller islands.
A community of around 1,600 people live on Hạ Long Bay in four fishing villages: Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, Cống Tàu and Vông Viêng in Hùng Thắng commune, Hạ Long city. They live on floating houses and are sustained through fishing and marine aquaculture, plying the shallow waters for 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks. Many of the islands have acquired their names as a result of interpretation of their unusual shapes. Such names include Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), and Mai Nha Islet (roof).
This was a trip that we were very much looking forward to and had researched so mush to make sure we received a quality trip, there are so many night mare stories out there about overcrowded boats, poor food etc. We booked through a travel agent run by Hanoi Quest House and had no complaints. The boat was old, but looking around they all looked a little ropey. The health and safety was ok, the rooms were comfy - perhaps a little cold at night and the food was excellent considering the conditions it was cooked under.
We were met at out hotel by a minivan and guide, who remained with throughout the tour. We left at 08:15, Hay Long Bay is a 4 hour bus journey from Hanoi, en route we stopped at the compulsory factory shop selling over priced gifts, but it is a chance to stretch our legs and get a drink.
Once on board the boat we are showed to out cabins and then have lunch. There are about 20 of us on board including a family of 5 Danes, travelling with a 9 month old baby. We get very friendly with them.
First stop on the cruise is to a Cave. We then have a go at canoeing on and around the Bay for a n hour or so, this gave us a chance to have a closer look at the floating villages. Then on to an Island called Ti Top, which can be climbed there is a Pagoda on top which has good views across the Bay. Unfortunately the visibility is quite misty and so we don't get such good views of the islands. The Island also has a small beach were we swim, although the water was very cold, but quite a serene moment with the other islands surrounding us. Sunset comes quite quickly and appears to be nothing special. Dinner was served and again was very good. We spend some of the evening on top deck watching the lights from other boats of varying sizes and quality, including some very posh ones that no doubt cost a small fortune to cruise on. The whole thing is very touristy but is a must do.
Next day we transfer to Cat Ba Island, where we visit the National Park and Monkey Island, climbing to the top to see views across the island - no health & safety here Ha ha.
We are then taken to Fantasia Hotel in Cat Ba Town, where we will spend the evening and night. Rooms are spacious, beds are comfy, food is average. We walk around the town in the afternoon, early evening. We don't thing much to it, it's a little like Blackpool in the winter season when everyone has gone home.
The following day we are picked up by the boat again and travel through Ha long Bay to reach the minibus and back to Hanoi. The visibility is still misty today, but the scenery is still impressive. We are glad we did the extended trip to the Island as we would have felt cheated without that. Ha Long Bay is worth a visit but be aware that it is very touristy.
4th & 5th Dec Hanoi
Back to hanoi for a couple of days. We visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Royal Palace and within it's grounds the House on stilts, lake and Pagoda.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum holds the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh; this massive granite structure looms over Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Had Ho's will been followed, though, the construction of the Mausoleum would never have come to pass: in his will, the founder of the modern Vietnamese state specified that his body be cremated, with his ashes scattered over the north, center, and south of his country.
The Vietnamese government did the absolute opposite of his wishes. Instead, they gave him the Soviet leader treatment (same as Lenin, Mao, and Kim Il-Sung) - embalming his body and installing it in an imposing concrete-and-granite block that stands before a vast square.
The Presidential Palace of Vietnam is a hundred-year-old French colonial building in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex surrounding Ba Dinh Square. Completed in 1906, the Presidential Palace is a a thoroughly French Beaux-Arts edifice painted mustard yellow.
The Palace is inextricably linked to Vietnam's French colonial past, so much so that when Ho Chi Minh took over Hanoi and the rest of North Vietnam, he refused to live in the finer parts of the yellow monstrosity. Ho instead chose to live in servants' quarters behind the building. In 1958, a stilt house was built in the palace gardens to serve as his residence and office.
While the Palace remains strictly off-limits to visitors, the expansive garden and pond at the rear of the Palace is wide open. A 300-foot path called "Mango Alley" leads from the visitors' entrance, around a carp pond, to the stilt house that housed Ho Chi Minh from 1958 to his death in 1969.
"Uncle Ho's Stilt House", or Nha San Bac Ho in the original Vietnamese, is an integral part of the "Uncle Ho" legend built up by glowing Vietnamese propaganda over the years. The stilt house's design is based on traditional houses from the Vietnamese northwest, which reminded Ho (it is said) of the houses in which he took refuge from the French while he was still a revolutionary.
There are only two rooms in the stilt house, both of which are no larger than a hundred square feet, and contain Ho's spartan personal effects. The house even lacks a toilet - Ho was supposed to have scrapped the toilet from the original design. The void deck under the house was used by Ho as an office and receiving area for important guests
Hanoi Hilton' Hanoi Prison
The Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War when it was sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as the "Hanoi Hilton". The prison was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum.
Future U.S. Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale and decorated U.S. Air Force pilot Bud Day were held as prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton, as was future Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who spent parts of his five and a half years as a POW there.
During the evenings we wander along the river and vsit the night market, both of which are great people watching venues.
Next stop Vientiane in Laos.