Việt Nam 2016

All times are local, dates are Australian format, ie dd/mm/yyyy

I have, wherever possible, written proper names in their correct Vietnamese form. Even by a native Vietnamese, written text cannot always be read unambiguously without the diacritical marks.

The names Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City [English], Sài Gòn & Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh [Vietnamese] denote the same city, capital of the south of Việt Nam. Herein (as often in Việt Nam), it is abbreviated to HCMC.
Vietnamese place-names are generally hyperlinked to Wikipedia; this provides a consistent, English-language reference.

Bookings:

Rail tickets

Việt Nam Railway

Domestic air tickets

Việt Nam Airfare

Hotels

Agoda

Tours

Viator

All these worked well, & are recommended.

Bear in mind that in Vietnamese budget hotels, only the rooms are airconditioned, public areas are not. Also breakfast, while available, is quite limited.

0647 18/06/2016

Our first morning in Việt Nam. Arrived yesterday, after an uneventful flight. One catch: there is a 1 hour time difference between Perth/Singapore & Việt Nam, because of this the travel agent told us we had 2 hours in Singapore. Actually there was only 1 hour between flights.
Immigration was simple, then we met Xum′s family "welcoming committee" - 4 cousins. They had chartered a minibus for the afternoon. There followed a wild ride through the outer edge of HCMC. There is a preference (no more) for driving on the right, the real challenge being the flocks of small motorcycles - hundreds - which flood through any gap in the traffic. Road rules (& courtesy) seem minimal: the courteous driver would never move here! However, since they don′t actually wish to harm each other (they don′t?), things actually work out OK.
Leaving HCMC we join a tollway - at last no motorcycles! As we reach
Bến Tre, we break off onto successively smaller roads, finally a muddy track we can just fit down. Now some driver courtesy does come into play: people wait to pass at the few wide spots. After dinner, went (in the same minibus) to visit more family. Having dismissed the minibus, the only way back to Bến Tre was a lift on 2 of those same motorcycles! We have not ridden bikes in 30 years. The "bike" was actually a scooter, not very fast with 2 up (or my driver went easy!) Much less traffic at night, but it′s still a bit worrying when a big truck roars up from behind, horn blaring, & gives nothing away (just as our minibus had earlier.)

The Vietnamese seem to hedge their bets over religion: we are given a room full of Catholic icons, but the room next door is set up as a Taoist shrine, & the next is a shrine to Quan-Yin Bodhisattva! Việt Nam has of course developed an indigenous syncretism of Catholicism & Buddhism - Cao Đài.

1039 18/06/2016

The day started with a walk with Tài around the farm: he was doing his daily inspection, so I tagged along. At one point, seeing a ripe fruit at the top of a tree, he just climbed straight up the quite smooth trunk, with no aids whatever. Grabbing the fruit, he then climbed down one-handed.
As in Cambodia, dragonflies are much in evidence: they eat mosquitoes, which consequently are very few (but I was bitten!)

Another motorcycle trip, this time to the family graveyard: a point of pilgrimage for Xum & the family. Again the syncretism: a towering statue of Christ the Redeemer (as in Brazil), & a Buddhist dedication at the entrance. As Xum said, there should be no antagonism between religions. Oh, if only Europe had learned that 18 centuries ago! One quite recent tomb has an explicit swastika: it is of course an old Buddhist symbol, far older than its recent European misuse. The tombs themselves bear no explicit religious texts, just the title “Tomb of” & the name & dates.

1405 19/06/2016

More visiting last night, on the bikes, sometimes down very narrow tracks. Finally the rain closed in, & we beat it for home. In the dark, notice how many bikes have no lights! If the rider wears dark clothes (often), the only visible point is the reflective license plate – if it's clean. More visits this morning: very local & on foot. Eventually driven back by rain.

1519 19/06/2016

Xum points out some interesting fish in backyard puddles: they can walk on their pectoral fins, overland! No doubt they normally inhabit the deeper irrigation ditches, but here they have wandered into shallow puddles. Apparently their walking on land is taken to presage torrential rain in the next few days. These then are the final link in the 3-fold defence against mosquitoes: fish, dragonflies, & skinks! Very effective, & 100% natural!

1630 22/06/2016

Bong Sen Hotel, HCMC. Our last day in the South, we hired a taxi for most of the day. Started with another family visit. To reach them, we had to cross a river (no bridge), in a traditional Vietnamese canoe, dodging larger vessels! Everyone but me is quite competent in these. We also saw (from outside) a Cao Đài temple: very ornate, with a large God′s Eye on the front. Apparently the ferry is maintained by the temple, as a public service.

1027 23/06/2016

Tân Sơn Nhất airport, awaiting the plane to Đà Lạt. Tân Sơn Nhất is surprisingly close to the city: built-up areas right to the edge. HCMC traffic is very slow, & I was worried we wouldn′t reach the airport in time. But suddenly, there it was, as we turned another corner among city buildings.
The taxi driver warned us not to display valuables in the street for fear of mugging: the street thieves are colloquially termed Uncle Hồ[ Chí Minh]'s children!

1643 23/06/2016

Evening, Đà Lạt. A very long taxi ride from the airport, into increasingly hilly country, reminiscent of Mundaring Weir Rd! Even a bushfire-risk dial. A final corner, & there is the city before us. The hotel is right in the centre; the sound of motor horns is constant as I sit in the room writing this. We went out for a walk this afternoon, until caught by a rain shower. Then decided to return, via a vegetarian restaurant the hotel had shown us. Turns out they are affiliated with a Buddhist temple, & do free food for the poor. After lunch, we continued walking, until the hills got a bit steep for us, & returned to the hotel, with nightfall soon expected.

Đà Lạt is at 1500m altitude, & consequently enjoys a much more temperate climate than the rest of Việt Nam. Its name translates as “City of Eternal Spring.

1120 24/06/2016

Airport, Đà Lạt. Dreams Hotel boasts a rarity on its breakfast menu: both Vegemite (Australian) & Marmite (British.) Even 5-star Vietnamese hotels lacked these.

A brief morning walk in Đà Lạt, then the airport shuttle bus. It left Dreams Hotel, then waited 20 minutes at the next one. Apparently it leaves Đà Lạt at 10:30, so stopped to make up time. In the parking lot was a Jeep with (possibly fake) US military markings.

Followed a hair-raising descent down the twisty hill road from Đà Lạt. We had flown in & out of Đà Lạt, as the road was described as very dangerous, with careless drivers. What they didn′t add was, you travel that same road between the airport & Đà Lạt anyway! The usual clouds of motorcycles, our driver with hand constantly on the horn, passing anywhere there was room. Once we left the hills, the road improved to dual carriageway, with bikes forbidden. Now our driver could pick up speed, & roared past everything, arriving at the airport at 1100. The lady at the check-in desk was so small I didn′t see her, & thought the desk was unoccupied!

1201 24/06/2016

The flight should have been leaving now, but is announced as 1 hour late.

1828 24/06/2016

Đà Nẵng: Vanda Hotel is so close to the airport that the first taxi wouldn′t take us! But definitely too far to walk! At the airport, an interesting example of "swords into ploughshares": old reinforced aircraft hangars, repurposed to grow food!
Very few banks will change travellers′ cheques these days, I think these will be the last I use. We are avoiding using Sterling, due to the Brexit vote.
Looking for a vegetarian restaurant, we lighted on an Indian one, which offered vegetarian curry. This looked OK, so we sat down & ordered. No action ... still no action. We then realised (they had not told us) that it didn′t open for another half hour! Once the food arrived, it was quite good, we noticed many Indian families eat there.
Walking back, we had to cross the big intersection at Dragon Bridge. Vietnamese traffic generally disregards all signals & markings: pedestrian crossings are good target marks! In peak hour (as it was), they switch off the traffic signals, & put on a squad of cops (1 in the centre, 1 on each approach) - their orders are obeyed instantly. Xum spoke to one of the cops, who then shepherded us across.

0919 25/06/2016

Just tried to change American Express travellers cheques at Saigon Commercial Bank - apparently the only one that does travellers cheques at all. They had me sign them, then rejected my signature as different! (6 years after they were first signed.) So now I have some double-signed travellers cheques to get rid of! Hopefully they will take them back in Perth. No more travellers cheques for me! (Back home, American Express in Perth accepted them at once, despite being double-signed.)

1535 25/06/2016

Back from a bespoke tour (in the hotel′s minibus) to Marble Mountains, Hội An, & a Buddhist monastery. Our driver advised the sea is OK (not polluted) at Đà Nẵng & HLong Bay, but is unsafe at Vinh. Beware of pushy street vendors in Hà Nội, also pickpockets. Likewise don′t point at anything: for example if you point at a fish in a tank, they will club it to death on the spot, & force you to buy at an inflated price. Marble Mountains used to be the source for a busy carving industry, but so much stone was taken that they now have to get it from a quarry elsewhere. Typical tourist shops, with pieces on sale of every size & style. Besides such pieces as might be seen in any art gallery, there are Uncle Hồ[ Chí Minh] & the statue of Liberty, besides religious subjects of all types - Mary & Jesus, Quan Yin Boddhisattva, & the 3 Taoist gods [Phước, Lộc & Thọ – Luck, Wealth & Longevity.] They offer to ship pieces worldwide (“no problem, but not cheap.”) We watched one piece being made: the principal tool used is a disk mounted on a power drill.

The five Marble Mountains rise sheer from the surrounds, tourists take a lift to (almost) the top of Mt. Thuy, where there is a pagoda. Many trails branch from here, to other pagodas, & "Heaven′s Gate" - the very top. This last is very steep: I found it quite exhausting in the heat. There is a good lookout from there. Returning, you have the choice of walking down, or (for another ticket) riding the lift down. We were worn out, & took the lift.

From Marble Mtn. to Hội An - a historic village & tourist centre. Packed therefore, with tourists & tourist shops. There is a lake, with boat tours on offer. After yesterday′s "Brexit" vote, the street money changers didn′t even offer a rate on GBP. We had lunch at a small streetside restaurant.

Returning, we stopped at a Buddhist monastery, & 2 boy-monks showed us a holy cave. Holy, because of several physical features:

0958 26/06/2016

Hanging out in the Vanda Hotel, little to do until we catch the train this afternoon. Both of us have caught a bug, probably from yesterday′s lunch in Hội An. Probably not the spring rolls, as they were cooked, rather the fresh vegetables served therewith.

1933 26/06/2016

Well, we survived our first leg on Việt Nam Railways (we had been warned to be careful, but had no trouble.) The “Reunification Express” is more of a route (HCMC - Hà Nội) than a specific train: 4 trains run daily, in each direction. The line is metre-gauge, single track. It has long been planned to upgrade this to a dual-track, standard-gauge line, but this has not happened yet.

Trains have 4 classes: hard & soft seat, 6 & 4-berth sleeper. The cost difference was small, so we took the best (4-berth sleeper.) With a 4-berth cabin, we shared with at most 2 other people, & had no problems. Trains are identified by a reference number (eg SE6) which will be on your ticket. Signs at the station tell which track the train will use, but not which platform (side) the train will board from. Watch other people (assuming you haven't the lingo to be able to ask.) There is drinking water & food service on the trains, but I can't speak for the quality (being vegan, we brought our own.)

The waiting room at Đà Nẵng was chaotic, but it was air-conditioned. To save the air-conditioning, they only open the door to the platform when the train is in, so of course a mad scramble ensues. Don′t panic: the train waits about 15 minutes. What did worry me was finding that we were booked in Car 12, & the train ended at 11A! Fortunately Xum (of course) speaks the language, & could ask an official. No panic, they brought up an extra carriage & hooked it on. I noted with interest that the main air lines between the carriages (which work the brakes, right?) were secured with a twist of fence-wire! That seems to be standard practice: I saw it all along the train. Along with the new carriage, they hooked on a new engine: the train was heading out in the opposite direction to that it had arrived, with our car at the front. That I′d rather not: if the train is dodgy, be at the back, not the front end. But there we were, with just a service van between us & the engine. So off we went, & after crawling through the suburbs of Đà Nẵng, cranked it up to a breakneck 50km/h - from the timetable, this was the expected average. Our extra carriage had clearly been standing in the sun: it was stifling inside, at first. Once the train started, the air-conditioning started too. After about 10 minutes, the temperature was quite comfortable, & so it remained. The route is along the coast, with many tunnels, it′s quite spectacular.

0847 27/06/2016

Romance Hotel (Huế) lives up to its name: there′s a vast king-size bed! Sign in the lift: “If the lift stops for any reason, please compose yourself...” On our floor is a fire-hose box with the legend “Fire Horse Reel!” Has Richard III joined the fire brigade? “A hose, a hose, my kingdom for a hose!”

The hotel directed us to a nearby vegetarian restaurant, the walk being a half-circle around the Independence Stadium, originally built by the French in the 1930s.

We tried going for a walk this morning, but the heat & humidity was just too much. Even Xum couldn′t take it.

1530 27/06/2016

The station waiting room at Huế was much better than at Đà Nẵng: no air conditioning, but a cool breeze & much less crowded. The wall decorations are French historical maps, dating back to 1838, with English captions emphasising that the Paracel & Spratly Islands, etc. have always been Vietnamese, not Chinese. Looking further, we found a second waiting room, this time air conditioned. The train left 20 minutes late, with no shunting this time. There are many Western backpackers on the train, but they seem to favour the open carriages, rather than the sleeper cabins we use. Moving off slowly north from Huế, we leave the coast, moving through much flatter country than yesterday. I had noticed the absence of signal gantries on this railway. They seem to use mostly electric ground signals, but I did see one pole-mounted electric, & even a pole-mounted semaphore signal. Many spots are controlled by flagmen.

1630 27/06/2016

Running parallel to what looks like the north-south highway. Many level crossings: the bigger ones have a moveable barrier & a flagman to operate it, lesser ones have an automatic half-barrier, the really small ones have nothing at all.

1745 27/06/2016

The train stopped in the middle of nowhere: a parallel track gave the clue, we were waiting for another train to pass, on this single-track line.
The carriages have a hot/cold drinking water supply. A cart of (non-vegetarian) food also circulates.
Open fields give way to forestry (apparently cultivated, not wild forest.)

1821 27/06/2016

The train stops at Đồng Hới, departure point for Hang Sơn Đoòng, featuring the largest known cave passage in the world by volume. Tour permits cost $3000 each, so we skipped it!

There are very few nameplates on stations: arrival announcements are given on the train, but in Vietnamese only.

1918 27/06/2016

Night has fallen. The train seems to be running faster: is this imagination, or is he making up time?

0800 28/6/2016

Vinh: Victory Hotel is very small, in a tiny back street. The hotel photo is not untruthful, but rather misleading. The room is airconditioned, but public areas are not. Out this morning to find a vegetarian restaurant to get takeaway for the train, chased back by a shower. About 34C & 100% humidity - even Xum hates it. The street electrical system is as chaotic as ever – you want a job here, as an electrician?

1215 28/6/2016

Vinh station: the SE6 should be about 75 minutes away. If you already have a ticket, the taxi will drive you right on to the platform, then wait there for passengers from the next train.

There is an electronic display board, but it shows the track a train will use, not the platform. You have to guess (or inquire) which side it will board from.

Running north from Vinh, through more flat country.

1830 28/06/2016

90 minutes from Hà Nội: huge numbers of monumental masons′ yards beside the track.

0800 29/06/2016

Rising Dragon Legend Hotel: deep in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội. A minimal street frontage (typical Vietnamese building), built very deep & tall. A sign in the lift offering massage “Re vice your mind!” Hmm...

As at Vinh, the air-conditioning is good in the rooms, but absent elsewhere. Every hotel has complimentary toothbrush, etc., but here the “toothpaste” bore some resemblance to dishwashing detergent, so I used my own. We had been asked to stand by for the Hạ Long Bay bus at 0745, the bus had not arrived by 0805, so we asked the receptionist to check they were coming (ie had not lost our booking.) Yes, they are coming. We were also warned to bring our passports.

1117 29/06/2016

Hạ Long Bay meaning “descending dragon” bay. The story goes that a fisherman on the bay saw what a Western sailor would call a sea-serpent. Of course, to the Vietnamese sailor, it was a dragon. Now the dragons' home is heaven, so this dragon had descended to earth. There is a mirroring legend about an ascending dragon in Hà Nội, commemorated in the name of our hotel.

Having disembarked the bus, we are now waiting for a typhoon (sic) to clear, before boarding the boat. I suspect the term “typhoon” is used here more broadly than its Australian cognate “cyclone.” The dock area is packed with tourist boats (sheltering from the typhoon?), the whole area is being developed as an upscale tourist area, with yacht marina, etc. The air very heavy & humid (typhoon?), no wind. The guide mentioned flag protocol on these boats: the national flag plus a yellow pennant indicating tourist traffic. They also carry day shapes: cone-ball-cylinder, which I cannot find in any (Western) signals book.

The boat (Scorpion) we had booked on, is docked for an inspection (they do inspect these boats? Good!) So we are transferred to Halong Phoenix Cruiser, apparently the best in this company′s fleet, at just 3 years old.

1415 29/06/2016

We are forbidden to leave harbour, & those cruise boats that left already are ordered back. The cruise boats do not come to the wharf, but send in their tenders. These tenders are also used to land on islands, launch/recover kayaks, etc. We have to wear lifejackets in tenders, but not on the main boat.

1440 29/06/2016

We have received harbour clearance, & are now under way. Sea flat calm. Cruise in among the weird limestone islands which are the distinguishing feature of Hạ Long Bay.
After cruising around the bay, we stopped off
Ti Tốp island, whose name commemorates the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov. There is an artificial beach for swimming, & a climb to the top. At the start of the climb is a very definite "No Country for Old Men"1 sign! The steps are steep & uneven: I was glad of the rope handrail, when it existed. Fortunately, the cloud cover (typhoon?) has left the air refreshingly cool: to climb this in the heat of Đà Nẵng would, I think, be beyond me. After the climb, I went for a swim: the water being comfortably warm, & apparently quite clean.
Following the island visit, we had a kayaking session: I ha
d never kayaked before, but managed to stay in! Fortunately my partner was experienced. We circled around 3 smaller islands, before returning to the tender. In the kayaks, we could get much closer to the islands, & note the extensive sea-caves & undercutting. Being closer to the water, I also noticed some oil slicks, but we were nowhere near the swimming area.

Back at the boat, dinner was served, & we were advised to eat well, expecting hard work again tomorrow!

0651 30/06/2016

Dawn was predicted for 0518, but with rain & 10/10 cloud, there was nothing to see. On going on deck from the airconditioned cabin, the camera lens fogged up. The trick being to pre-warm it with the hair dryer before leaving the cabin. We were advised the cave trip was even more strenuous that yesterday′s climb, & hazardous due to wet rocks, so we skipped it.

0815 30/06/2016

The water-barge arrives, & refills our tanks. (Why don′t they do this in harbour? Is it to provide showers for the cavers when they return?) The weather improves: rain stops, but still 10/10 cloud.

0900 30/06/2016

The cavers return, & tell us it was much easier than advertised! It′s fully developed as a show cave, with coloured light displays. After a break to let the cavers recover, we have a cooking lesson, ie we prepare our own lunch: Vietnamese spring rolls (Xum being the master at this!) Of course they are not vegetarian, so we sit it out. Once prepared, the rolls are taken to the galley for cooking. A separate batch of vegetarian rolls was done by the galley for us.

1635 30/06/2016

Back at Rising Dragon Hotel (can you find it in the picture?) So we survived Hạ Long Bay, & more significantly the road to/from Hà Nội! Our return driver pushed his luck everywhere. The traffic seemed far heavier than outward, in the afternoon.

Everywhere in Việt Nam, you see streetside signs offering phở (sometimes explicitly phở bò), a popular beef soup. The sign often carries a cow's picture.
In the north, a cat's picture similarly advertises
lẩu mèoyes, it really is cat soup!
The last straw was
hớt tóc, with a girl's picture! Dare I translate? Relax: hớt tóc is a hairdresser!

Tomorrow is a slack day, around Hà Nội.

0953 1/07/2016

Back in the hotel, after wandering around Hà Nội, until driven back by the heat. A short walk around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (lake) - legend has it that a turtle rose from this lake & passed a sword to the king. The hotel′s map shows a vegetarian restaurant nearby, but we couldn′t find it. They showed us 2 others, which we plan to try for lunch.

Some shops have very creative names, they also (doubtless without authority) re-use well-known names.

We found the restaurant indicated by the hotel, & had a rather costly lunch. The afternoon was too hot: we stayed in the hotel until evening.

2035 1/07/2016

Back from an after-dark walk around the lake, & a visit to the Night Market. The traffic is unspeakable, in crossing the road, bear in mind the advice of the Hạ Long Bay guide: “never retreat!” In effect, you just stride out, & defy them to hit you (but be sure they actually do have space to avoid you.) The lake is lit up at night, & is clearly a popular spot with local people, besides tourists. We saw 2 wedding photo groups by the lake, & noted Hà Nội brides seem to prefer Western-style dresses, rather than a traditional Vietnamese áo dài (the áo dài is more popular in the south.)
The night market is a street supposedly closed to traffic, with a line of stalls set up down the middle. I wrote “supposedly closed”, as those ubiquitous motorcycles flout the law as usual, & barge through the
mobs of shoppers.

1800 2/07/2016

Returned from tour to Hoa Lư & Tam Cốc.

We had been advised to contact the tour office to reconfirm our booking, however they didn't respond to our emails, & even the hotel desk was unable to reach them by phone. This had us worried, however the bus arrived OK. An English-language sign therein:
Please pay attention not to enter water or foreign matter into the computer under the passenger seat.”

The tour guide, Phương (“If you can't pronounce it, call me Suzie!”), gave us similar advice about traffic as previously: close your eyes & keep walking!

Half-way to Hoa Lư the bus makes a “comfort stop” at Cầu Giẽ [link in Vietnamese], another shop selling artwork to tourists. Unlike many, this one forbade photography.
There were a group of artists doing embroidery work: I watched, then realised they were all disabled. Nearby was a collection box, & a bilingual notice: these people were born crippled due to the country being polluted by dioxin during the war. They were much less than 40 years old: proof that this stuff persists similarly to landmines, ruining lives long after the war is ended.

The road frequently passes rice paddies, with people doing back-breaking fieldwork, in the heat. Spare a thought for them, when eating rice!

Hoa Lư is notable for a group of 3 hills, which are said to represent the 3 Taoist gods. Here are the royal pagodas dating from the 10th century CE. In front of each is a “dragon bed”, the king's throne.

Nearby Saddle Mountain is said to hold the remains of a king who suicided after defeat by the Chinese. To hide his body from the Chinese, his mandarins constructed 99 (an auspicious number) identical coffins, placed his body in one, & then buried them all in random locations around Saddle Mtn. The mandarins themselves then suicided, to protect the secret. Unsuprisingly, the remains have not been found to this day.

The pagodas have a no photography rule – they are considered sacred places. Not all tourists observe this, however. They are constructed of wood, the insides being very dark. I felt an intense ambience standing in there.

We then moved on to Tam Cốc for lunch, a restaurant buffet. Very little of it was vegan however; we contented ourselves with chips!

Tam Cốc, meaning “3 caves”, is a stretch of river running through dramatic karst landscape. The whole of northern Việt Nam would surely repay a visit by cavers.
Small boats, built of steel sheet, carry visitors down the river, through 3 successive caves. The boats are propelled by a rower sitting at the stern, they are equally competent at managing the oars with hands or feet!
We were warned not to fall out of the boats “else the crocodiles will come up, & ask
how can we help you! As far as I know, there are no crocodiles.

The first cave is the longest, at 125m.

The second & third are much smaller: one can see right through from one end to the other.

After the final cave, the boats are met by locals in other boats, selling typical tourist stuff. Then we turn round, & return.

1004 3/07/2016

In the morning, we take a final walk round the lake. Several times, we are accosted by organised groups of schoolchildren (with their teachers), out for a chance to practise their English. This usually consists of asking set questions from a script, then discussing our answers.

Hotel checkout is at 1200; we book a taxi to the airport for that time, as the heat is too much for us to think of walking around again. So we sit in the airport until the flight at 1845.

In the airport, a Vietnamese boy practices his English with me. We swap knowledge of geography, of Việt Nam & elsewhere.



1The 2007 movie