Central Vietnam

Between the major cities of Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south lies a bunch of ancient Vietnamese towns and cities with an influence of cultures and a centre-point for one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war.

My trip northwards started with the ancient town of Hoi An – a UNESCO world heritage site. The town itself is a small and easily accessible on bike or foot (no motorised vehicles inside the main town), and the highlights of the little town are in a cluster, a few metres apart from each other. Hoi An was the base of spice traders in ancient Vietnam, and the settlements included people from Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands and India. By night, the town transforms into this magical place lit by lanterns; there’s restaurants at every step, but the whole town makes you feel like you’re back in the 15th century (albeit one where people have iPhones and selfie sticks).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2024.jpg

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2025
Hoi An by night.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2019
Japanese bridge – a wooden bridge linking the Japanese quarters to those of the Chinese.

Hoi An is famous for its Cau Lau noodles – a dish of noodles and pork only available in Hoi An. The noodles are delicious, as is the case with most Asian food, but nothing to revere in my opinion.

I also had my first experience with bia hoi in Hoi An – a local draft beer brewed fresh daily and sold in bottles measuring around 700 ml for around 15 cents! Like the rest of Asia, where there is cheap alcohol, there will be 19 year old kids wanting to get shit-faced; and Hoi An, in spite of its culture, is no exception. But the bars are less than a handful, which makes them easy to avoid.

-x-x-x-

The highlight of any trip to Central Vietnam is ride a bike through the Hai Van pass – rated by Top Gear as one of the top 10 scenic rides in the world – as every tourist shop will also point out to you. You can rent a bike, strap on your haversack to it, and make this beautiful journey on your own, or you can have an ‘Easy Rider’ do the riding while you sit at the back of his bike taking in the views. It had been raining on and off during my time there, and even though I really wanted to ride through the mountains myself, getting an Easy Rider seemed like as safer option.

My first stop was the Marble Mountains of Da Nang: five marble mountains representing the 5 elements. The mountains have Buddhist sanctuaries all over, and only the mountain representing water is open to tourists to ascend. The view from the top – breathtaking (mainly because you’ll be breathless after the ascend).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208f
Top of the Marble Mountains.

The next stop was the Hai Van pass…

Now, there are times when pictures and videos cannot do justice to an experience, and riding through the Hai Van pass is one of those things. There’s wind in your hair, the temperature is just right, and riding through the pass is a feast for the eyes. I was glad I chose to get an Easy Rider because it started raining while we were reaching the top of the mountain, and you’re literally riding through the clouds with a very short visibility range. The rain clouds also made it pointless for me to stop at the top of the pass and climb up to the very tip for the viewpoint – I wouldn’t be able to see more than a metre ahead of me, but well…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2099
I was forced to do this, I swear. 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_205eUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208eUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2087

After we got off the pass, my Easy Rider took me to a waterfall where ‘only the locals go’. Everybody knows that’s tourist talk for ‘it’s where all the tourists and maybe some locals go,’ but I was in for a surprise. The waterfall was actually a place where only locals go, and I was the only non-Vietnamese person there besides an older white man who had married a local.

The Vietnamese were fascinated by my non-white appearance, and the kids were mesmerised by my GoPro. They passed it around and looked at the exact same view in front of their eyes through the screen on the GoPro like it was magic. An old man swam up to me with his friend who spoke some English. They asked me what I did, and were very curious to know what I thought about Vietnamese women. I found out why a few minutes later when the non-English speaking guy offered my his daughter’s hand in marriage…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2078.jpg

While I was being propositioned, my Easy Rider arranged for a simple, but delicious lunch by the waterfall – spicy grilled fish, steamed rice, cabbage and soy sauce – and a lot of Huda beers (a beer company from Hue). He got us 6 cans, but only had 1 because he was riding, which left me with 5 beers to guzzle.

The journey ended in the imperial city of Hue, where I said goodbye to my Easy Rider who would now make the scenic ride back to Hoi An by himself… what an amazing job to have.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2028.jpg

-x-x-x-

Hue was the capital of one of the Vietnamese dynasties a few hundred years ago, and is host to what is called the Imperial City of Hue: a walled palace that was the seat of the king.

Being at the border of what was Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam, Hue was the place where the bloody Battle of Hue took place. One of the longest and bloodiest battles between the Americans and the Vietcong. This also means a lot of the imperial city has been destroyed, but what remains is still pretty amazing.

I’ll spare you the details since Wikipedia has all the information you need about the battle; so here are some pictures of the Imperial City.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_20bcUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_20bdUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_20b7

 

Advertisements

Dalat, Vietnam

It started out as an amazing first night. My hostel hosted these amazing family dinners where pretty much the entire hostel ate a local meal with the family that ran the hostel – all you can eat Vietnamese spring rolls, a salad, a soup, a vegetable, a chicken dish, and rice… all for a pricey $3!

I made friends with a group of Dutch girls over dinner (the Dutch are easily the nicest people I’ve met on my travels), and we decided to go out on the town. Our first stop was the Escape Bar which is a multi-level bar that’s designed like a maze. You buy your drinks at the entrance, and then make your way through multiple stairwells, each randomly breaking out into a cluster of tables / a dance floor / an area full of quirky artefacts / toilets / another bar to buy more drinks. You have to stick together as a group, or you aren’t going to find your friends again. I’d have pictures of the bar, but one of the Dutch girls was designated photographer for the night, and she left the morning after, without exchanging coordinates.

From the Escape Bar, it was another bar, and then another, and then another, until we ran into a bunch of partying locals on the street, who insisted we share their barbecue and beers with them; we did. We also sang a couple of Westlife songs – the only English songs they knew!

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1faa
Dalat street party. 

After that, we ended up at the only night club open till 4 am in Dalat… 2 blocks from my hostel. The club was packed: fancy locals in VIP tables on the sides of the club, not-so-fancy locals in little clusters all around the club, and tourists strictly in the centre of the club on the dance floor. The clubs have a weird no drinks on the dance floor policy, I guess they’re worried someone will smash their beer bottles on another’s head? Props to them for trying…

As we were dancing, we noticed a fight break out at the VIP tables. One of the locals grabbed the other by the collar and shoved him all the way to the DJ’s booth. Now the DJ, not wanting the crowd to miss the spectacle, promptly turned off the music so that everyone’s eyes are towards the action. Right on cue, the collar grabber pulled out a knife and stabbed the other guy right in the neck!

Now, there are some people who like to stand and watch fights like these, but not me… I fucking ran! My hostel friends, just like me, ran with. We told the bouncer at the door what happened, and he insisted we get out of there immediately as well; like we needed more convincing.

We ran maybe a block until we were a fair distance from the club, and right outside the little alley where my hostel was, we met some other people from the hostel smoking cigarettes. Clear from any danger (or so we thought), we were narrating our story to them, when we notice some shouting from the direction of the club and the guys from the club were now brawling on the streets with machetes! We ran again, this time straight to the hostel.

We were later told the two guys originally involved probably belonged to rival gangs. And sure, maybe they did, BUT WHO BRINGS KNIVES AND MACHETES TO A NIGHT CLUB! AND HOW DO YOU CONCEAL THEM!

-x-x-x-

Anyway, Dalat is a tiny city / town, 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City, and the French came here to escape the blistering heat of Ho Chi Minh City. For being this close to the city, I was surprised by how cool the temperatures were. Dropping to 15 degrees at night in the middle of the Vietnamese summers, the hostels here don’t even have air conditioners installed. They don’t need it.

The place is filled with French style villas, and they’ve even got their own Eiffel Tower (it’s a telephone tower – but under renovation currently).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fff

There’s a lot of trekking you can do in the surrounding hills, and some canyoning as well. I enthusiastically signed up for a canyoning trip, and then proceeded to get very drunk (night of the stabbing), so I did my canyoning trip hungover. A lot of fun, but would not recommend.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fcaUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fc2UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fae

Similar to the Escape Bar is the Dalat Crazy House, which is a home / hotel that was built by the lady who was the teacher to the guy who built the Escape Bar. Quirky house, but I can’t imagine this being a peaceful hotel to stay in – there were over a hundred tourists walking around. It has a nice aerial view of Dalat though.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1ff3UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1feeUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fe2UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fef

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1fe8
Classic Asian girl pose. 

In spite of my experiences though, which I believe was a one off, Dalat is one of my favourite places in Vietnam. The family run hostels, weather, food, and coffee make it the perfect getaway.

Most tourists travelling Vietnam go to the old city of Hoi An from Dalat, but it’s a really long bus journey, so I decided to stop by the beaches of Nha Trang and break up the travel time. But it’s a city made literally just for the Russians – they’re everywhere and more in number than the locals – and everything is either in Vietnamese or Russian.

It’s supposed to be a good spot to scuba dive from in Vietnam though, but I’m poor, so I didn’t go. For what it’s worth, here’s a picture of the beach at Nha Trang.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2005

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I started my Vietnam journey with the lovely city of Ho Chi Minh. Originally called Saigon, but rechristened after the northern Vietnamese (Vietcong) won the war against southern Vietnam. Not many know about the Vietnam war, and the reasons behind it (included me, until this trip), so I’ll start this post with a bit of background. What I say may sound opinionated (it is), and it’s very likely that I have missed mentioning, or perhaps I may not even be aware of, some of the facts surrounding the war. But this is what I understand of the situation:

Vietnam was a French colony and under the French, like every other country under foreign rule, they were oppressed. Towards the end of WWII, the attitude of oppressed nations (including Vietnam) changed. The fight for freedom was gaining traction, and it was getting harder for the oppressors, especially the allies of WWII, to continue to hold their colonies while stopping Germany from doing the same in Europe – they couldn’t take a noble stance at the UN if they themselves committed atrocities outside Europe.

Vietnam demanded independence, but the French didn’t want that; the riches they were looting from Vietnam were too valuable to let go of. France had suffered heavily in WWII, and sought the help of the United States in controlling Vietnam. Under Ho Chi Minh (the leader of the Worker’s Party of Vietnam), however, the Vietnamese declared independence from the French rule. The details aren’t necessary (nor do I know them well enough), but as a result of this declaration of independence, Vietnam was split into two. Ho Chi Minh’s party controlled the north, while the French (with the help of the USA) indirectly controlled the south – installing a Vietnamese puppet to rule the south. By the mid 1950s though, the French had more or less left Vietnam, and the southern Vietnamese cause was aided and controlled only by the USA.

The Vietcong began their attempts to free the south and unify Vietnam as one independent nation. The Vietcong were a communist regime, while the south of Vietnam was an attempt at democracy. The USA didn’t want this. They wanted Vietnam (or at least southern Vietnam) to be a democracy – because they didn’t want communism in more countries of the world. Why was this USA’s problem? Your guess is as good as mine. But from what I understand, they were financially (and politically) motivated – war is, after all, the best kind of business. And while the USA didn’t ‘officially’ enter the war against Vietnam until 1965, they long funded the war by aiding the southern Vietnamese.

On the flip-side, Russia, along with a few other communist nations decided to support the Vietcong. If USA was supporting the south, the Russians probably found it fit to support the north. With this, Vietnam ended up being a battleground that continued the cold war between the communist regimes of Russia and the democratic nation of USA. The southern Vietnamese were armed with US provided helicopters, tanks, bombs, guns and other ammunition, while Russia and China took care of the Vietcong. And though the battle went on for decades, and the casualties were mainly Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese were basically pawns. The US did everything they could to force the Vietcong to retreat, including the use of Agent Orange, but the Vietcong had some serious fight in them. In spite of being repeatedly bombed by the USA: every single day, for years and years, the Vietcong did not give in. Through the war, the USA dropped 7 million tons of bombs in Vietnam – that’s more than double the amount dropped in Europe and Asia in WWII! As for the chemical warfare, please Google ‘Agent Orange’ to see the consequences of what the chemical did to the locals.

In the end, the Vietcong proved to be too resilient. They were masters of guerrilla warfare, and although USA didn’t officially lose the war – they withdrew forces from southern Vietnam, which led to the downfall of the southern Vietnamese regime – it seems pretty clear that it was a war that they were not likely to win.

A badass, war-movie like interaction took place when the Vietcong army entered Saigon, broke through what is now called the Reunification Palace (post-war name to signify the reunification of the north and south of Vietnam), and entered the cabinet room where General Duong Van Minh, the leader of the southern Vietnamese forces, along with his advisors were waiting. I quote from Wiki: “The revolution is here. You are here,” Minh said. He added, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” Colonel Bui Tin, the commander of the Vietcong curtly replied, “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f7f
Reunification Palace.

Coming back to the city as it is today, they have the War Remnants Museum that gives you, admittedly, a pro-Vietcong view of the war. But the museum is worth a visit. They have a whole section dedicated to the horrific consequences of Agent Orange – and the pictures made my insides churn. There’s a lot of American tanks, helicopters and planes on display in the courtyard outside the museum, and they are pretty cool.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f7d
Courtyard outside the War Remnants Museum.
The city also has a lovely, French style post office, as well as a French built cathedral called the Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f82
Outside of the post office.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f83
Inside of the post office.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f84
Notre Dame Saigon.

A short drive away from Ho Chi Minh City, there is a town by the name of Cu Chi, that has what remains of the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. During the war, most of the fighting took place in the middle of Vietnam by the border between the north and the south. But the Vietcong found a way to bring the battle to the south. They took the sea route from the north, and went all around Vietnam to Cambodia, from where they entered the mainland, moved northwards, and then cut east to Cu Chi in Vietnam.

If you want to see how the Vietcong fought, this is the place to go. Masters of guerrilla warfare, these locals were farmers by the day, and soldiers by night. They used these tunnels as a place to hide, as well as a place to eat, sleep, store weapons, and sneak up on the enemy. The network forms a part of a larger network of underground tunnels, and the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves are around 120kms long – stretching all the way to Cambodia. The tunnels themselves are so tiny, it’s amazing how these soldiers moved through them. The tunnels are a measly 60 centimetres by 80 centimetres, and the only way to move was crawling horizontally on their bellies.

The tourist accessible spot of the Cu Chi Tunnels are some of the few tunnel networks that have been preserve by the Vietnamese government, and a lot of the tunnels collapsed during the war because of the bombings. There’s an original entry point that you can briefly enter into to see what it was like to be in the tunnels, and there’s also a 100m stretch of tunnel that they’ve more than doubled in size through which tourists can enter to see what it was like being in the tunnels: claustrophobic, cramped, terribly hot, and tiring – in spite of them being king-sized.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f8c
One of the original entrances to the tunnels.

I also visited the Mekong Delta, which is a vast network of rivers and rivulets that the Vietnamese use for trade and travel.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1ffb
Cruising the Mekong Delta.

In terms of food, Ho Chi Minh City offers pretty much every kind of cuisine you could want. I stuck to Vietnamese food for the major part. I love bahn mi, and it’s probably one of the few good things the French did to Vietnam: they gave them the recipe to a perfect baguette. During my tour of the Mekong Delta there was also some snake infused rice wine on offer. It’s rice wine with some snake poison (the alcohol makes it harmless) and the snake itself (for added zing maybe?). A cool souvenir to take back from Vietnam.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f9e
Ready to drink snake infused rice wine.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f92
Take away bottles for tourists.

A lot of people don’t like Ho Chi Minh City, but that’s probably because they are expecting a Bangkok like experience. I really liked the city, its history, and as is standard with most of Southeast Asia, the people.