Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Vietnam travel -Mekong Delta daytrip

DSC00476a
On my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I visited the Mekong Delta on a daytrip. The mighty Mekong is Southeast Asia’s biggest river, running through several countries until it exits into the sea in southern Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.

The tour was cheap, less than US$20 and included transport, trips to a temple and then an island on the delta, activities on said island, and a lunch. It went rather well, and I unexpectedly ended up meeting 3 travel friends from the mainland. The last part of the tour had to be curtailed due to rough waters which I didn’t escape unscathed, as I and another guy got splashed by the brown river water on our boat on the way back.

On the morning, I went and boarded the tourbus outside the tour agency I’d booked the trip with on Pham Ngu Lao Street. The bus then went to pick up other people at their hotels, concluding with a bunch of Indian 50-,60-somethings from Malaysia. They took a while to get on, both because their party was quite numerous and some of them weren’t exactly in the best of shape. They were however in very good spirits and I couldn’t help being amused at the camaraderie and the cheerfulness of these oldsters. At one point, I  talked to one of them and she joked apologetically about their health ailments regarding bad knees and backs etc. It wasn’t a big deal.

The first stop was at a temple. This complex had several large Buddhas- one sitting, one lying sideways, and one standing up, and was a refuge for locals during old times when bandits or pirates used to attack. Then we made a quick restroom stop at the fanciest highway “rest stop” I’ve ever been to. It was like a small resort with thatched roof-covered restaurant and wooden lodges, and nicely-maintained lawn and garden.
DSC00449
DSC00450a

We finally reached the Mekong Delta, arriving at the city of My Tho, the largest in the Delta area. The Mekong was wide and brown with forested islands in the middle, not exactly the grand spectacle I’d expected, but still big nonetheless. On both sides, there were one-story buildings and in the horizon, a large suspension bridge spanned the river. Colorful fishing boats with pointed prows and dotted eyes were moored alongside the shore and we passed a few on the water. We got onto a boat and moved on to an island in the river.
DSC00462

I have to mention our guide. An articulate and confident guy who spoke good English, as did many Vietnamese guides and hotel staff, and was quick to make jokes and laugh out loud. Initially I thought he seemed a bit too laidback and wasn’t really into his job, but he turned out to be quite cool.

As we approached our destination, he told us about the importance of coconut on the place. Apparently the settlement was started by some crazy guy who worshiped coconut. On that island, “everything is coconut, eat coconut, pray to coconut, get married using coconut, hehehe!” our guide blurted out.

Once on the island, we visited a coconut candy workshop, then a honey workshop and even took a ride on carts pulled by small horses through a neighborhood. On the boat ride, I’d heard some guys speaking what sounded like Mandarin. After a while, I asked one of them if they were from China and he said yes. They were easygoing and younger guys, and just like me, they’d all quit their jobs and were taking some time to explore SE Asia, having made their way down from Hanoi too. We hung together during the trip, and though we parted when we returned to HCMC, it wasn’t the last we would meet.

At the coconut candy workshop, our guide personally demonstrated how to make the candy- first he broke a coconut on a stake, then put the broken pieces into a machine that grated it into tiny pieces, then put them into another machine that formed them into a hardened blocks, which were then boiled in a giant metal cauldron (and presumably mixed with sugar or other ingredients). Finally the hardened mixture was laid out into long slabs for workers to break into square pieces and package them. The workers did this on a big table at the side while we all milled around. Besides coconut candy, there was snake wine on sale, which consisted of wine mixed with real snakes or scorpions put inside for a certain period of time (you see this in many restaurants in China too). We got to try small shots.
DSC00502a

DSC00522

We moved from place to place within the island via boat, moving through the swamp-like channels. Lunch was at a restaurant nearby, on which there was a crocodile farm on the premises. There was a stream (not over the crocodiles) traversed by a narrow bamboo bridge that was the flimsiest one I’d ever crossed on. There was also an arena for weddings which had lots of dragon-entwined pillars and an altar.
DSC00528

At another stop (I can’t remember which), the guide brought out an actual python and let us all take photos of it. I think it was the first time I’d held such a big snake and there were a few nervy moments when the snake kept moving its head towards my face.
DSC00545a
Not me, but one of my new Chinese travel pals, and not his daughter either, she was with a Vietnamese family on the tour.

We ended at an open-air teahouse where we had tea and fruit, and were entertained by a troupe of female singers, including a little girl who did a cute song-and-dance, accompanied by a guy playing a Vietnamese instrument. There was supposed to be a boat ride, but by this time rain was falling and the water was getting a bit choppy so that part of the itinerary was curtailed.
DSC00562

On the way back, our guide gave us a little speech, where he thanked us for coming and expressed his optimistic patriotism, “In five years’ time, Vietnam will be better and we’ll be number one! Sorry, Thailand!”

The guide came and talked to us for a bit, saying he used to be an engineer and then asking me what I did. When I said I wanted to work in a newspaper, he gave a sympathetic smile and said how in Vietnam, newspapers were fading away. A sad reminder that traditional media’s decline wasn’t just happening in the West.

The trip to the Mekong Delta at My Tho was quite pleasant. For a more full-on Delta experience, you can go on further to other places like Ben Tre, where you can visit sites of Vietnam War battles and even spend a full day or two.

DSC00458a    DSC00509a  DSC00566a

DSC00536   DSC00516a DSC00495a

Advertisements
Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Huế’s imperial tombs

Going back to my Vietnam trip last year, I’ve still got a few places to post about, such as Huế’s imperial tombs.

Huế is famous for being the capital of Vietnam for almost 150 years under the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945. Yet it was during that time when Vietnam slowly became taken over by the French and absorbed into their colonial holdings. Hue was also a main battleground during the Tet Offensive during Vietnam War, which caused a lot of damage including to the Imperial City, the palace of the emperor.

While the Imperial City is probably Huế’s most famous landmark, the imperial tombs are also well-known. I visited three of them on a day tour, along with the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. The tombs were the Minh Mạng, Khải Định, and Tự Đức. The tombs were all located outside the city, amid forest but in clean and impressive compounds. Two of them were in scenic outdoor settings, while one was inside a stone building. The outdoor compounds were really pleasant and featured wide open space, lakes, and forest, and it seemed. The buildings were a bit worn but had a historic and dignified aura befitting the resting place of emperors.

First, the tour went to Thiên Mụ Pagoda. Located on a small hill overlooking the Perfume River (which also runs through the city), the 7-story pagoda is attractive, but the most interesting aspect of it is the car on display on the grounds, which was driven by a monk to Saigon who protested the South Vietnamese government’s policies by burning himself to death. The two photos below show the view of the Perfume River and the pagoda. The photo of the car is far below near the end.

DSC09640 DSC09643

Minh Mang tomb
This is located in a large, pleasant open-air compound with a lake, temples and pavilions. Minh Mang reigned from 1820 to 1841, and he was known for his opposition to the French and to Christian missionaries. He rebuffed contact from the US and other Western nations, and had an isolationist approach to international relations. However, his rule was regarded as fair and effective.
The actual tomb is located in a crypt protected by walls that visitors can’t pass. There were a series of animal and official statues, that represent guardians which accompany the emperor in the afterlife. This is similar to Chinese imperial tombs, such as the Ming tomb in Nanjing, that also feature spirit ways with statues of animals and officials. The Vietnamese statues are not as numerous, and flank both sides of a wide walkway leading up to a pavilion (see the last photo below for this tomb) whereas the Chinese pathways flanked by statues are narrower and longer.

DSC09648 DSC09672 DSC09687 DSC09694

DSC09656

Khải Định tomb
This emperor ruled during the 20th century from 1916-1925 so his tomb complex incorporates both Vietnamese and French designs. The interior of the complex is incredibly opulent though in reality he wasn’t a very powerful or notable emperor. Unlike the other two I visited, this tomb is inside one large building overlooking a hill with no gardens or lake.
DSC09703

DSC09714 DSC09720 DSC09734
DSC09746a

Tự Đức tomb
This one had a small attractive lake as well as a pavilion and a broad walkway flanked by animal and imperial official statues. Tu Duc reigned from 1848-1883, quite a long time, but war with the French and internal rebellions weakened his reign to the point that he agreed to give southern Vietnam to the French, from which Vietnam began to lose its sovereignty and become a French possession.

DSC09764 DSC09765 DSC09778 DSC09794
DSC09800

DSC09627
Car driven by monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon to protest the government by setting himself on fire and committing suicide.
DSC09756a
Woman making incense at a small workshop we stopped by during the tour.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- day 2 photo roundup

DSC00267
Side view of Notre Dame Cathedral.

DSC00028
US vehicles and firepower outside the War Remnant Museum.

DSC00261
The troop strength of the US, South Vietnam and its allies during the war.
I’m surprised to see that Thailand and the Philippines contributed troops. The latter was wise to send a few and to withdraw after 1969. The South Koreans were staunch allies, if not a bit foolish, keeping their numbers up throughout the war.

DSC00146DSC00087DSC00081
Tortured and killed political prisoners in South Vietnamese jails.

DSC00267
US casualties, bombs dropped,  and costs in the Vietnam War compared to World War I and II.

DSC00049 
The ubiquitous Bell Huey UH-1, seen in every single movie and TV show about the Vietnam War. Even the pretty girl can’t resist getting up close.

DSC00008a
Inside the Saigon Central Post Office. The map on top is of HCMC (Saigon) in the 19th century.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 2

DSC00274

Continuing from part 1 of my second day in Ho Chi Minh City, I started out walking to the HCMC museum, formerly the Revolution Museum. Afterwards on the way to the War Remnants Museum, I passed one of the most famous sights from the Vietnam War- the Reunification Palace. The iconic photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through its gates in 1975, when it was the office of South Vietnam’s president, symbolized Saigon’s fall. Being lunchtime, it was closed so I could only look from outside but I wasn’t interested in visiting it. I didn’t find it particularly attractive either, being a rectangular five-storey building with a large round lawn in front of it, though there is a row of palm trees on its roof.
DSC00263a

When I arrived at the military museum, it was closing for lunch, so I had two free hours. This is a characteristic of many museums as well as the Reunification Palace in Vietnam, which close at around 11.30 for lunch, during which all visitors have to leave. I found it kind of amusing – the concept of a public place closing for lunch, though if I was an employee, I’d probably be very glad. I went for lunch at a nearby noodle restaurant where I had a decent bowl of noodles and was charged a small amount for the sanitary napkin, something I’ve experienced in Beijing too.

Then I walked to Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral (in the photo at the top of this page), which was probably just as elegant as its namesake in Paris. From the back it had a rounded shape due to several round compartments, then from along the side it switched to a long form with a main central arched doorway. Its front featured two bell towers with sharp rooftops flanking the much-shorter center. The entire cathedral was red, except the slightly brown corners, giving it a unique look. Needless, it was much more attractive than the cathedral in Hanoi, one of the few things about HCMC I liked more than the capital. There was even a photo shoot going on with a beautiful woman dressed in a white traditional ao-dai surrounded by a few dozen pigeons.

Opposite the street, I noticed a three-story pink colonial building. Entering it, I realized it was a post office, probably the nicest one I’d ever been to. It was like stepping back into time. The Saigon Central Post Office interior was a fully functioning post office but it had been preserved to retain its oldtime feel with wooden panels and counters. The inside was very spacious and elegant with a high arched ceiling. At the end, a portrait of Uncle Ho, looking very dignified with white mustache and goatee, looked over the entire place. At the sides near the front were wooden enclosed ATM booths, with analog clocks showing the time in different parts of the world. There were also souvenir stores where I bought postcards to mail right afterwards.
DSC00003

I returned to the War Remnants Museum and it was open again. There were a good number of visitors, especially foreigners, unlike every other museum I’d visited in Vietnam including even the military museum in Hanoi. The outside of the museum was like a dreamland for military enthusiasts. There were quite a number of impressive military machines , mainly captured from the Americans including jet fighters, Chinook helicopter, tanks, and artillery such as the “King of the battlefield” – the giant M107 cannon mounted on tracks. There’s even a flamethrower minitank and a mini-bulldozer used for clearing mines, which I saw in a ‘Nam comic, a former Marvel series about the Vietnam War.

At the side was a recreated section of the Con Dao island prisons, built by the French and later used by the South Vietnamese government to imprison suspected Communist sympathizers. It featured dungeons and “tiger cages”- cages with barbed wire that housed Vietnamese prisoners who could only stoop inside. There were chilling photos of prisoners showing their injuries after being tortured and imprisoned – missing teeth, amputated limbs or badly bent arms and legs- and some actual torture equipment.

The museum was a 3-storey rectangular block that somewhat resembled a giant bunker. Unlike Hanoi’s military museum, this museum almost fully focuses on the Vietnam War. The first floor featured easygoing material like propaganda posters and photos of rallies around the world supporting the Vietnamese and slamming the US. A good amount of these rallies were in Communist countries like Cuba and Eastern Europe, but a few were in Western nations as well, which was surprising. I knew there were anti-Vietnam War rallies in the US, but not in other Western nations.

The upstairs featured more sobering sights. There was an impressive photo collection of the war from various journalists of US soldiers, Vietnamese rebels, and civilians, ranging from depicting US soldiers on a regular patrol to torture of captured Vietnamese, fleeing civilians, and killed US soldiers.
One section was about the use of chemical weapons by the US, including horrendous photos of disfigured victims, which still has an effect to this day. One display was a letter written  by a Vietnamese chemical weapon victim to US President Barack Obama urging him to take action to resolve the lingering chemical weapons presence. Meanwhile, captured American heavy weapons were on display, including rifles, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and even mines.
While again basically all the information and exhibits portrayed the US as responsible for causing all the damage and deaths, it’s not hard when viewing data such as that more bombs were dropped in Vietnam by the US than during World War II or viewing the photos of victims of chemical attacks to feel sympathetic and even admiringly about Vietnam, at least for me. However I have to say there wasn’t any menacing or belligerent tone to the information and displays, but a matter-of-fact and conciliatory one.

The museum definitely lived up to its must-visit reputation. I definitely recommend it if you visit HCMC, whatever your stance about the war.

DSC00006
The inside of the post office with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on top at the back.
DSC00265
Back of Notre Dame Cathedral.
DSC00014 DSC00027
The mighty “King of the Battlefield” – self-propelled M107 175mm gun.
DSC00056
Two of the “tiger cages” used to hold political prisoners outdoors.

DSC00187
Captured Viet Cong being hung upside down for questioning.
DSC00133 DSC00101
Castro and Cuba solidarity for Vietnam.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 1

DSC00186
For my second day in HCMC, it was time to experience the city all by myself after having had a good tour with Nam from Saigon Hotpot the previous day. My plan was to go to the Revolution Museum, the military museum (War Remnants), and take in some colonial buildings in the area. I was particularly eager to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was described as one of HCMC’s best sights in many sites and articles online.

I set off from my hotel, passing through the large park right opposite all the hotels and restaurants along Pham Ngu Lao. It featured a large, lotus-filled pond and walkways framed by palms and other tall trees. It was quite pleasant and wouldn’t be the last park I’d walk through in HCMC, a big contrast with Taipei where parks are small, few, and often had more concrete than trees and grass.

DSC00101

First, I went to the Revolution Museum, which focused on Ho Chi Minh and the revolution against the French which ended with Vietnam’s victory in the 1950s. Housed in a elegant gray colonial mansion, as many Vietnamese museums are, the museum’s name was changed to the City Museum, possibly reflecting a move to tone down the militarism and expand the museum’s scope. It also makes sense to have a museum for the city itself. I also found out recently via a website this was the former residence of the French Governor and the final home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt strongman who eventually died in a coup.
DSC00108

The city part of the museum consisted of a few ancient artifacts found in Saigon, which had been formed in 1698, and a range of cultural objects including wedding clothes, instruments and even ancient Vietnamese coins. The revolution part featured photos, letters, weapons, uniforms, and even a pot and pipe that had been used by revolutionaries during the revolution. The displays were quite impressive, full-size human mannequins making speeches on stage or defiantly wielding weapons. One of the main attractions was a bicycle, fitted out with giant bags piled atop it and looking as if it had just been brought in from service on the Ho Chi Minh trail, when the North Vietnamese moved supplies on foot and on bikes through jungle and hills to their allies down south. There was a lot of serious firepower on display too such as rocket propelled grenade launchers, grenades, and machine guns, and even the humble pistol. On the ground floor, there’s a stairway at the side that leads down to an underground shelter that had been built by Ngo Dinh Diem.

There weren’t many people, especially locals at the museum. Nam had told me that not many Vietnamese found this museum interesting, which wasn’t surprising given that the museum was mostly propaganda, promoting the heroism and glory of the Communist party. Around the building were several Vietnam War-era fighter planes, tanks, and artillery pieces, another common feature of Vietnamese museums.

What was annoying though was being hassled by drivers offering city tours on the outside, one of whom took it upon himself to appoint himself as my driver and told me he’d wait for me when I came back out so he could take me on a tour. When I came out about one hour later, the damn guy was actually there though thankfully he left me along when I ignored him. As I walked to the War Remnants museum, I encountered more of these pushy drivers. It was really silly since I was literally minutes away from the place’s sights so there was absolutely no reason I’d want a driver.

DSC00116a
F-5 fighter jet, an American-made airplane, which was flown by a North Vietnamese agent in the South Vietnamese air force to bomb the Reunification Palace (when it was the office of the South’s president). That explains why it is in North Vietnamese colors.
DSC00143
Vietnamese theater costume, which looks similar to Chinese Beijing Opera costumes.

DSC00181  DSC00259a
Hotel with a rather interesting and nice design.
DSC00260
Another park in HCMC near the HCMC museum.
DSC00158

DSC00227
Serious firepower in the HCMC museum.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City at night

Pham Ngu Lao St is HCMC’s backpacker/tourist district, supposedly the local equivalent of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Hopefully Pham Ngu Lao never becomes as loud, seedy or notorious. While it’s great that hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies fill Pham Ngu Lao, one of the best things is that a major market and some fine historical buildings are just minutes away.

DSC09853a

Ben Thanh Market is HCMC’s biggest market and during the day it’s filled with vendors selling clothes, coffee, food, and souvenirs. At night the building closes and a night market forms outside on both sides, with mostly clothes and souvenir vendors catering to tourists. Especially notable are the many “brandname” backpacks on sale for amazingly low prices. North Face is a very popular one, and at first glance can seem genuine (I’ll have more on this later). Another notable thing is how persistent the female vendors can be in trying to get you to buy something. During the day, I went inside Ben Thanh Market and while walking through the narrow lanes in between all the stalls, female vendors constantly called out while a few even touched my arm with slight caresses. It felt nice, but of course not everyone might feel that way. At night, the vendors may not be as touchy-feely, but they will call out prices, lower it, then even pull up a calculator and tell you to name your price. As a last resort, some women will block you from leaving their stall while looking at you with sad puppydog eyes while begging you to buy – “please, pleeeease buy from me. If you don’t buy, I won’t let you go.”

Looking back, it seems so comical and flattering, but at times it was a bit too much.

On the flipside, I had a male vendor ridicule me in Vietnamese to his fellow vendors after I asked him about some magnets and then walked away without buying. He spoke some Vietnamese in what sounded like a mocking tone and his fellows burst out laughing.

DSC09857

DSC09855

Besides the market, if you continue walking along the main road you will hit a really fancy part of town where you can check out the City Hall and Saigon Opera House, both colonial buildings. The City Hall is very nice and you can walk right up to it, situated at the end of a driveway with luxury brandname stores on both sides. The Saigon Opera House has an arched doorway and a long rectangular shape, which I didn’t see properly since it was in the night. There’s also the Hotel Continental Saigon, a hotel famous for its role during the Vietnam War for being the haunt of American journalists.

DSC00016
Ho Chi Minh City’s City Hall

DSC00039
Saigon Opera House

DSC00038

Back to the market, when you cross the street to an open space and face a roundabout with a statue of a man on a horse (14th century Vietnamese hero General Tran Nguyen Han), there’s a fine view (the first photo in this post) of the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam’s tallest skyscraper. Shaped like a leaf, or a dagger, and lit up at night, it’s a very nice sight It’s also a reminder of HCMC’s economic vitality and how Vietnam is a nation in flux, communist but following a similar path as China.

DSC00014  DSC00029

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

A brief look at Da Nang

DSC09841

In between my visits to Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, there was Da Nang. Da Nang is one of Central Vietnam’s major cities (the country’s fifth-largest city) and probably the most beautiful, with a fantastic coastline filled with beaches facing the South China sea and several prominent small mountains. Da Nang is also very close to several famous sites like Hoi An, a lovely historical trading town and a World Heritage Site just about 30 minutes away, and the My Son Champa temple ruins. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to stay in Da Nang or visit Hoi An.

What I did have time for was two hours since my bus from Hue had arrived before 12 and my plane was departing in the midafternoon at 3.30pm. I was taking a flight from Da Nang and not Hue, since its airport was being upgraded and closed to civilian flights. As soon as the bus, filled with people going to Hoi An, dropped me off outside a travel agency, a taxi driver appeared at my side and I got into his car intending to go to the airport. Yet I figured since I had several hours ahead, maybe the driver could take me on a drive around town.  On the drive into the city on the bus, I’d seen Da Nang’s coast and the sea, which was very scenic. The city itself was made up of mostly lowrise buildings and streets that didn’t have much traffic in complete contrast to Hanoi. There was a sleepy vibe similar to Hue, though Da Nang seemed more attractive. The driver offered to drive me to two mountains- Monkey Mountain and Marble Mountain- for US$30, but I decided to just go to Monkey Mountain for just US$20. In hindsight, this was probably too much, but I didn’t have much of a choice since I didn’t just want to spend hours in the airport doing nothing.

IMAG1306

To get to Monkey Mountain, we first drove over a bridge to the coastal part of Da Nang, and passed a long stretch of lovely beach which the driver said was called China Beach. The Americans called it that, he told me, and I later realized this was the “China Beach” that an American Vietnam War TV show was named after, and which was a favorite for many American GIs. The beach was quite attractive, though it was virtually deserted with not a single tourist on the sand or swimming in the water. A few dozen fishing boats floated just off the shore at one point, most likely only used in the morning. Soon we passed the beach and reached a hill that faced the sea – Monkey Mountain. “There used to be monkeys, but now it’s hard to see them,” the driver said. There was a huge Guanyin statue on the hill that could be seen from far away and that was where the driver stopped. Guanyin is the Buddhist goddess of mercy (her name is similar in Vietnam) and coincidentally members of my family worship her. The Guanyin statue was on the grounds of a temple which was free to enter, but the main draw was the view which was very amazing. In the distance, there was the blue sea, bordered by white beaches and by buildings of the city.
DSC09844

After about 20 minutes there, the driver took me back to the city to the exact place where I’d asked him to take me on a drive, then charged me an extra US$5 to go to the airport (see my post Hustled in Hue). I didn’t exactly feel too good about this, but in hindsight it was forgivable. Da Nang’s airport was very new and attractive, which was surprising, given Hanoi’s underwhelming airport, and yet consistent with the city’s overall scenic location. I had a delicious bowl of noodles adorned with a huge chiplike object at a very nicely-adorned restaurant outside the checkin area, for a good price I should say, very unlike many airport restaurants (Hong Kong ahem). I also bought a big bag of plantain chips at a booth outside the checkin area, which I then saw for a cheaper price inside. Inside the waiting area, I saw a huge Qing-dynasty map of Southern China, which I’d first seen in Hue’s Citadel, with a caption saying that since it didn’t show the Spratly and Paracels, it proved that they didn’t belong to China then. The Vietnamese government sure does take this territorial dispute very seriously. Anyways other than this, my brief stay in this city with a beautiful coastline was pleasant enough.

IMAG1304a IMAG1302
The Guanyin statue as seen from the beach. This photo was actually taken from inside the taxi as we drove by.
I never actually stepped foot on the beach.

IMAG1296
The “Dragon bridge,” one of several suspension bridges that led to the coastal part of the city.  

DSC09838
Temple where the giant Guanyin statue was located.

IMAG1311
The bowl of noodles with a giant crispy “chip” that I had at the airport.
IMAG1318

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the first full day

DSC09989

So back in June on my Vietnam trip, my next stop after Hue was Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon which it is still popularly known as. It may not be the capital, but it is Vietnam’s commercial powerhouse and a famous city, mostly due to its role in the Vietnam War as the capital of South Vietnam and where American troops and journalists had a major presence. It is located in the south, near the Mekong river delta, in perfect contrast to Hanoi which is in the north.

I left Hue for Da Nang, where I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. My Jetstar flight went smoothly and it got into Ho Chi Minh City airport on time, which was more modern and bigger than Hanoi’s. However I encountered a slight issue very soon, as I mentioned in my previous post about scams. I approached a taxi counter right before you exit customs, and showed the guy my hotel address, only to be given a larger amount than expected. 320,000 (US$16), he said. From websites, I knew the amount was around US$10, so I declined politely and was about to walk off when he called me back. 200,000 (US$10), he said, and I agreed.

My driver didn’t speak any English so my ride into the city was mostly quiet. Along the way, he did tell me the name of a church when I asked him. My hotel was in a side street near the end of Pham Ngu Lao, which is the city’s main backpacking drag, full of hotels, bars, and travel agencies. When we arrived, the security guy came and helped me carry my luggage inside, which was pretty good; I’d also experienced that in Hanoi. My hotel was a little underwhelming, being the newer and presumably downscale sibling of a hotel with which it shared a name, but with a “2” being added at the end. Parts of the interior were still being worked on, and the two guys at the front desk were respectively friendly and cunning. I walked to Ben Thanh market that night, taking in the sights of Pham Ngu Lao and its myriad eating places, hotels and souvenir shops.  The market was just about 10 minutes away from my hotel.

The next day, I did a free daytour with Nam, a student guide who was a member of Saigon Hotpot. Like the organization in Hanoi who I also did a free tour with, Saigon Hotpot was made up of mostly university students who volunteered to take visitors around the city. Nam was studying engineering and had a really good knowledge of temples and Buddhism, certainly much more than me. As with my female guide in Hanoi, Nam’s English was remarkably fluent. I’d wanted to go to the History Museum, the Jade Pagoda, and “Chinatown”, and we went to all three. Whereas in Hanoi, my guide had called taxis to take us, Nam had us take the bus at the station near Ben Thanh market, which was interesting and cheap as well (not that the taxis in Hanoi were walletbusters). At one point, a lady on the bus stood up and began making a pitch to other passengers about kitchen tools, which she was selling. It was of course very surprising, and a first for me, though it is a normal event according to Nam.

The Museum of Vietnamese History was similar to its counterpart in Hanoi, but it’s still worth a visit if you have time. The exhibits are all on the first floor and include military weapons, Champa statues, and ethnic artifacts. The most famous exhibit is an actual mummy, laid out behind a glass case exposed in all its decaying glory- a noblewoman who had been buried in the 19th century. There’s a more extensive display of the Oc Eo culture, which existed close to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

DSC09905

DSC09933

We had lunch at the “Lunch Lady,” a local semi-celebrity who’d gotten famous after being visited by Anthony Bourdain. This wasn’t a high-end restaurant, but a typical outdoor Vietnamese foodstand that served noodle or rice dishes. True to her reputation, the Lunch Lady had a lot of customers, mostly office workers. Nam ordered for us, which turned out to be delicious pork noodles, and it was nice to sit down at one of these places to eat at last. Though, I couldn’t help notice the rat running around a few meters from us, a sight that I’d see again in Bangkok.
DSC09962

DSC09978

The Jade Emperor Pagoda was a red temple that had been built in the early 20th century by Chinese-Vietnamese. Despite being called pagoda, it’s not actually a tower but a two-storey temple. The temple’s roof resembles that of Chinese temples with its continuous curved layers, but with one striking difference- the colorful decorations on top and on the roof corners that feature dragons and people.

Outside the temple door, vendors sold birds and little turtles for believers to purchase and release. This is due to a Buddhist belief that setting animals free can earn a person merit. In Taiwan, some people also do this, releasing fish or birds in large numbers on certain days. It has dubious effects on the environment as not only do some of these animals die in the wild, or damage the local ecology, but as Nam said, end up being caught again, or fuel the capture of more wild animals just to be sold and released. The courtyard features a fish pond but more popular is probably turtle pond on one side, filled with turtles that had been released by believers who’d bought them from the vendors. It wasn’t as pleasant a sight as one might think. It was very overcrowded and dirty, and dozens of turtles were climbing up all over each other on the sides of the pond. Inside the temple, there were several halls, each with a main altar featuring a different deity, similar to Chinese temples. The main reason people visited this pagoda was for women to pray for a child. There was a second floor with more halls including one with the goddess of mercy Guan Yin. Nam did a fine job explaining the different deities and practices, helping me learn new facts and making me feel a little ashamed that I knew so little about my heritage when it came to Buddhist temples and gods.

DSC09998

Finally, we went to Cholon, the “Chinatown” of Saigon. This was a historic part of the city, where much of the local Chinese population lived and traded. Yet, as Nam explained, this wasn’t exactly Chinatown since many of the residents and stores were not Chinese. I didn’t mind too much. This area was indeed full of bustling trading, with cloth stores especially numerous. There was the Binh Tay market, a large market filled with food and dry goods stalls, and that also has a memorial to the wealthy Chinese businessman who financed the market. There were several restaurants and businesses with Chinese signs as well. We went to a couple of old temples, featuring similar exquisite rooftop decorations which far outdid those on Chinese temples.

We also stopped at the St. Francis Xavier Catholic church, an attractive French-built church with a tall central tower, and went inside. Right outside the front door is the grave of a former priest- a Father Tam. We happened to sit right behind a bench which had an inscription on it. Apparently this was where former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were seized from after having fled into the church during a coup in 1963. Diem and his brother, who ran the secret police, would later be executed in cold blood, though having been quite a dictator himself, little sympathy was given to Diem. Nevertheless it was a sad part of history to encounter.

It was a good first full day in Ho Chi Minh City and a good tour, taking in history (museum, the church), religion (temples) and commerce (Cholon in general).
DSC00006
A Chinese temple in Cholon.

DSC00002  DSC09985
A vendor selling birds and turtles outside the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

DSC09991   DSC09920

Another nice museum diorama depicting a conflict with China, this time the Qing Dynasty who were allegedly defeated.
DSC09968
The turtle pond at the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Huế’s Imperial City

DSC09410
Depending on how strong your knowledge of Vietnamese history is, Huế may or may not be a famous city. For me, I had to visit it due to it having been Vietnam’s capital before Hanoi, and for its Imperial City, where the emperor lived and held court. This was the main reason I was going to Huế. I didn’t know much else about Huế, other than that it saw major fighting in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive.

I found Huế to be very laidback and much less hectic than Hanoi. It was less crowded and had wider streets with less traffic. At times I hardly saw anyone on the streets, and to be honest, it seemed kind of dead compared to Hanoi. On the other hand, it did feel very safe and seemed like a relatively prosperous place. My very first impression wasn’t a very good one, as I mentioned in my previous post on being hustled right at the train station. Eventually my opinion of the city improved, but not to the point where I can say I liked it a lot.

On my first day, after I reached my hotel and checked in, I took a brief rest and then went to the Imperial City, which was only about 20 minutes away, across the Perfume (Huong) river, which divides Hue. The northern part is the historic area, while the south, where my hotel was, is more newer, with more hotels and businesses. The Imperial City is a massive compound consisting of a citadel and numerous imperial court buildings, temples, and residences inside, including the emperor’s palace (Purple Forbidden Palace). This whole “city” was built at the start of the 19th century, modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden Palace. And like the Forbidden Palace, Hue’s Imperial City was quite huge, and it was kind of hard at times to know which building was which, since all I could use was the tiny map on the ticket. I should point out that there seems to be dual pricing with Vietnamese paying less than foreigners. I assume this because after I’d bought my ticket and entered the gate, a security guard saw my ticket and gestured to me using Vietnamese, as if to ask why was I using the ticket. The ticketchecker lady talked to him, possibly saying I was a tourist, and I got through.

Before you get to the entrance gate and buy the ticket, if like me you’re coming from across the river on the south side, you’ll first see a large lawn with a large fortified mount and a giant flag in the center. You pass this, crossing over a small bridge over a moat that leads directly to an entrance gate in the wall, topped by a two-storey pavilion on top. There is no sidewalk so you have to dodge motorcycles and scooters from time to time. Then, you’ll pass another lawn behind the wall, where several large cannons are on exhibit under an open shelter at the side. Then you’ll see the main entrance, which is topped by a pavilion on top, and surrounded on two sides by protruding sections, giving it a squarish U shape. Unfortunately, this entrance looked a little less than grand since the two extensions were being renovated and thus, covered by green screens and scaffolding.
DSC09412

The Imperial City was quite decent, but several of the buildings were a bit shabby and overall it wasn’t in very immaculate shape. After the main entrance, there were several modest pavilions arranged around stone courtyards, as well as two large ponds filled with lotus fronds and carp. A lot of renovation was going on, which gives the impression of being in a construction worksite, but this means in future, it should be nicer to visit. There were even a few ruins which you can poke around in.  Some of the nicer buildings were in the back, including a residence for the emperor’s mother, and a temple. These buildings are in their own small walled compounds while paved roads run at the side. More buildings were constructed up till the early 20th century so some are more modern, such as the Royal Administrative Office built in 1932, a rather plain two-storey building which served as the office of the Royal Cabinet. One quirky thing I saw was a large 19th century map of China, with the caption below saying how this Chinese map clearly showed that the Paracel and Spratly islands were not included, demonstrating that these islands were not part of China – I don’t know how authentic this is and also whether this is definite proof since China could have had other maps including the Paracels, which are very close to China’s Hainan province. This is a major issue with Vietnam, though I would say they have a point with the Spratlys.

The most attractive parts of the Imperial City included:
—The flag tower of the citadel which surrounds the Imperial City. The large rampart with its huge Vietnam flag is the first thing you see when you approach from across the river, and it’s an impressive sight.
DSC09391

–The main entrance gate and  the temples and pavilions immediately after it. While the main gate was marred by scaffolding, I think it’s a very decent structure.
DSC09427

—The Truong San residence, near the rear on the left side, which has a moat garden with trees growing from a giant rock formation in the water. It was a retreat used by the emperor’s mother who lived in a nearby building.
DSC09538

—The The Mieu and Hung Mieu compound, which has several temples to honor past emperors and the parents of Emperor Gia Long, the early 19th century ruler who had the Imperial City built. There are several pavilions and temples here, as well as drum and bell towers. It’s also on the left side, before the Truong San residence.
DSC09574

–The Dien Tho residence, where the emperor’s mother lived. There’re several attractive buildings in here, including a two-storey house, a temple, and a large lotus pond with a pavilion built next to it. This compound is also on the left side.
DSC09524

–The small exit gates at the sides, especially the left, of the Imperial City, which feature very elaborate multicolor designs. While the writing is in Chinese and the meaning of the symbols may be derived from Chinese mythology, the design is very Vietnamese.
DSC09534

–The Duyet Thi Royal Threater. This performance hall  was renovated in the late 1990s and the inside is richly decorated with red wooden decor, classic lanterns, and dragon-decorated pillars.
DSC09465

The Imperial City is huge just like the Forbidden City in Beijing. But while the Forbidden City consists of many buildings interconnected within high walls and gates, the Imperial City’s buildings are all separate from each other. Commoners were forbidden from entry, just like in Beijing’s palace. There is a lot of empty space inside, including lawns, whereas the Forbidden City is all paved, and it was difficult at times to keep track of where I was. I even walked out the rear exit, which faces a small street, and walked back in, though with the approval of the security guards there, who were relaxed enough sitting and chatting with each other. While I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole place, I do think it is a good place to visit and explore. I am certainly glad I went there by myself rather than on a tour, where I probably wouldn’t have been able to see everything.

To be fair, the Imperial City suffered a lot of damage during the Vietnam War, specifically during the Tet Offensive. In this campaign, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters launched large attacks on cities in South Vietnam, resulting in a lot of urban fighting and destruction. As such, many buildings inside the Imperial City were destroyed. According to sources online, the Imperial City buildings also suffered from weather and termite damage.

When I was ready to leave, I experienced a slight hiccup as the main entrance had been closed. I had to walk all the way to the side entrance to go out, which took a good extra 10 minutes. Walking towards the citadel, it was nice to see a lot of people flying kites on the lawn behind the citadel walls. I walked back over the bridge atop the Perfume River, being momentarily confused by the lack of pedestrians and I felt a little weird walking by myself (on the sidewalk) next to noisy traffic. Later that night, I’d walk to a nearby street to find a place to eat and had dinner at a rather decent Indian restaurant.

DSC09589
Greedy fish swarming by me, some with their mouths wide open hoping for food. The ponds inside all had carp who were probably very accustomed to being fed (fish pellets were on sale in nearby boxes) since they all swam expectantly by me whenever I stood over them.

DSC09596
A pleasant scene in the late afternoon exiting the Imperial City.DSC09446
One of the buildings after the main entrance.

DSC09456
I’m not sure if this is an altar. There were a few “ruins” like this.

DSC09498
A pleasant pavilion atop the gate at the rear of the Imperial City with a cafe inside.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Hustled in Huế (and elsewhere)

The title of this post is quite brief and self-explanatory, though an alternate title could be “How I got tricked, then thought I got tricked really bad, then had things turn out ok in the end in Hue.” As a bonus, I also listed the scams I experienced elsewhere in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.

It should be obvious, from my previous posts, that I really liked Vietnam a lot. Vietnam lived up to, even exceeded, my expectations, and it was definitely the pick of the Southeast Asian countries I visited, which included Cambodia and Thailand. What made my Vietnam experience better was that I had almost no problem with safety, other than that probable pickpocketing attempt the first night in Hanoi, the heat (since Taipei was and is still in the midst of seriously hot weather), or the food. However I didn’t escape unscathed when it came to being overcharged and tricked. Vietnam does have a reputation for this with travelers, as do other Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, looking at you). Again fortunately I wasn’t cheated that badly so I can look back at it as a humorous experience and with just a little head-shaking.

The first time I got cheated was when I got into Huế. I had just gotten off the train and through the exit, when I was confronted by drivers and touts. A couple of guys appeared at my sides, asking me where I was going. Now, I needed a taxi since I didn’t feel like walking, so I told one guy my hotel. OK, he said, 5 [US] dollars. That sounded cheap to me so I decided to go with him. That was mistake no. 1 as I was hustled over the price. Another guy said he was from my hotel, and he pulls out a card of my hotel and hands it to me. “That’s my hotel. I was just dropping off a guest,” he said.  This made me believe him, which was mistake no. 2 as I was hustled again (read on, please). The card was just a hotel card and didn’t have his name.  To be honest, the guy seemed nice and not aggressive or tricky. But then, that’s how a lot of hustlers are.
Hue is a former capital of Vietnam, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by its train station. I have to admit the Hue station fit the description of a small town train station, with a small, old one-story building, an exit that was virtually next to the platform, and a mob of drivers hanging around right outside.

Hustle no. 1 was I was overcharged by a few dollars by the taxi driver. I’d actually emailed the hotel before about how to get there from the train station and they had said I could walk 15 minutes or get a taxi for US$2. Taxis are very cheap in Vietnam so US$5 was definitely too much for a car trip of 10 minutes.

Hustle no. 2 was I was completely tricked by the second guy who said he was from my hotel. His English was quite decent and he asked me about my travels while in the car. When I said I was going on to Da Nang, and that I was planning to visit the emperors’ tombs, he said I could buy a bus ticket from him to Da Nang, and book a day-tour to see the tombs. Sure, I said. And with that, he had the driver drive me to a hotel (not my hotel) and led me inside to buy the bus and tour tickets from a travel counter, which many Vietnamese hotels have. I paid for a daytrip to see the tombs for around 200,000 dong (US$10) and a bus to Da Nang for around the same price – I had planned to take the train from Hue to Da Nang, but given my overnight train had arrived 1.5 hours late, I didn’t want to chance the train since I was taking a flight in Da Nang. I would get picked up at my hotel by both buses, which was good. I can’t remember the exact price. I handed over the money, got the ticket receipts, which had no telephone number or company name on them, and walked back to the taxi. There were a few guys hanging outside that hotel who the hustler exchanged greetings with, resulting in big laughs and even a mock kick. My hustler did seem like a tricky guy at that moment and I’m sure he was telling them of my gullibility with glee. In the car, he said how he and his family managed my hotel and others as well.

When we reached my hotel, he got out and pointed me to the hotel entrance, which was in a small alleyway near the road. Then he said goodbye and got back in the car. I thought that was weird he didn’t come inside. When I entered the hotel and talked to the receptionist about the guy, she was puzzled and said she didn’t know anybody by that guy’s name (Son). At this point, it finally dawned on me that maybe I had just been tricked (yes, I’m a bit slow). I showed the tickets to the lady and she pointed out there were no phone number or company or hotel name, so it was impossible to contact the people if my bus didn’t come.  Lord, how I really wanted to whack myself at that moment.

The next morning, I went out to the street at the scheduled time to wait for the bus for the tombs daytour. The time passed agonizingly slowly- 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, and I really got annoyed. F**k, f**k, I kept repeating to myself, cursing my own stupidity as well. Every time I saw a bus or van drive onto the street, I would eagerly hope it would stop, only to be disappointed as it passed by. To be honest, the money wasn’t that much but it was the act of being conned that really got at me. I felt foolish standing outside my hotel for so long, especially when pedestrians or vendors looking at me. I think I went inside to wait, because I can’t imagine I waited out there for over 20 minutes. The bus came after over 20 minutes and I was off on the tour. The tour turned out well, though not without some further hiccups. This will be for another post.

Now, the next morning (two days after I arrived in Hue), I would be taking a bus to Da Nang, another city close to Hue, from where I’d take a plane to Ho Chi Minh City. I was still a little apprehensive about whether the bus would come, though it was lessened by the fact my tomb daytour did turn out to be real. I waited for about 10 minutes when a guy on a motorbike stopped and called out to me. I was puzzled and was close to ignoring him since I thought he was some random driver, but he said my hotel’s name and something about the bus to Da Nang. I got on, with my small luggage wedged in front of him while I sat behind him. “Where’s the helmet?” I asked, and he said there was none, it’s ok. I had no choice but to go along with the ride, riding pillion helmetless on a motorbike in Central Vietnam. Now if this was Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, I would have refused, especially as a helmet is mandatory for anybody riding on a motorscooter or motorbike, but this was sleepy Hue, so it was alright (though I’d have preferred a helmet anyways). The guy dropped me off at a waiting room in the first floor of a building, and soon the bus arrived. Within two hours I was in Da Nang, safe and sound.

In the end, things turned out alright, with both trips that the guy tricked me into buying being real and even good value. But I learned my lesson. In future, I wouldn’t be so quick or foolish to trust somebody without concrete proof of what they say.

Hustle 3 was actually in Da Nang, not Hue. After I got off the bus at Da Nang (the bus was going on to Hoi An) at a travel agency, a taxi driver was there and told me it’d be US$5 to go to the airport. I accepted as I thought US$5 was a decent price and didn’t even think of asking him to do it by meter (yes, making the same mistake as I did outside the Hue train station) instead.
Then, since I had over 3 hours before my flight, I asked him if he could drive me to a scenic area in Da Nang – I’d seen the coast from the bus driving into Da Nang and it was very beautiful. The driver offered me several options, and I chose to go to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20. Now, by Vietnam standards, this might have been overcharging, especially as the mountain wasn’t too far from where we were. However, given that this was an out-of-the-way destination- a mountain by the sea, and because I didn’t want to wait in the airport for 3 hours, I thought it was ok and I don’t quite see this as a scam.
What was possibly a hustle was that, after the driver drove me to the mountain, he drove me back to the exact same spot where we’d agreed on going to the mountain, and said that from there to the airport would be US$5 in addition to the US$20 for going to the mountain. I didn’t remember if he had said going to the mountain only was US$20, and I had thought the US$20 would be for the mountain and the airport. I had no choice but to agree, and for some reason he kept the meter on on the way to the airport. When we entered the airport, he even asked me to pay the car fee, and when we reached the dropoff point, he told me the total was US$25 or 550,000 dong. He was quite smart with money since he insisted on US$1- 21,000 dong rather than 20,000 or 20,500 (which the rate is close to), which some hotels offered. I was paying him in dong, but I took out my calculator. US$25 was 525,000, not 550,000 and I paid him that.
Whether that was his way of getting a little extra or an honest mistake, I don’t know but I was a little suspicious.
What was definitely a scam and made me annoyed was that the meter had showed about 40,000 (US$2) for the drive from the place we’d returned to (from the mountain) to the airport. I asked him about this, but he insisted that we’d agreed to US$5, which I did indeed, so I didn’t protest further. The main reason I felt annoyed is that since I had given him extra business – by going to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20 – I thought he might at least have loosened up on the airport fare and agreed to the metered amount. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was actually a decent guy to talk to, but it was clear when it came to money, he was very sharp.

Hustle 4 wasn’t actually a successful hustle, since I prevented it (yeah!). What was bad was that this hustle attempt happened in the Ho Chi Minh airport. I hadn’t arranged a taxi pickup with my hotel since I thought it’d be cheaper getting a taxi myself. As I got through customs and was walking out of the passenger area, I saw a taxi company counter. I walked up to the guy and showed him my hotel address. 320,000 dong (US$16), he said as he consulted a sheet. I immediately rejected it since I’d seen on travel websites that a taxi from the airport to HCMC’s Pham Ngu Lao, where my hotel was, was only supposed to be US$10 or so. I said I’d get one on my own outside and walked away. Right away, he called me back and said 200,000 dong (US$10). Of course I accepted. I paid him, got a receipt ticket, and got the taxi outside at the taxi queue. It was a good thing I was aware of the approximate taxi fare price beforehand since it saved me from overpaying by 120,000 dong (US$6) or almost a third more than the real price.


Tips
for avoiding the predicaments I got into:
— Always keep in mind local prices. When asking for prices from say, taxi drivers, don’t be fooled by hearing the price in American dollars. US$5 might sound little, but the real fare might be US$1 or US$2. To avoid this issue altogether, do the next step.
–Always ask taxi drivers to use the meter. I did this in Thailand and I managed to prevent myself from being scammed by other drivers who had quoted prices and refused to use the meter (I’ll write about this in a future post).

–Use your calculator or phone if you’re unsure about prices. This helps you figure out the price in your local currency and prevents you from being overcharged. This is especially helpful for Vietnam since the dong exchanges at about US$1 to 20,500.
–When you get taken to a place to book a tour or buy a bus ticket, always note the name of the hotel or agency and its phone number.
–Research the prices of things like taxi trips before you go somewhere, either by asking your hotel or going on Wikitravel or Tripadvisor.

When’s all said and done, I wasn’t scammed out of much money, and the two main hustlers – the Hue tout who claimed to be from my hotel and the Da Nang taxi driver – were actually rather friendly people though this is not an excuse for scamming people, so I don’t have much hard feelings. It’s ironic, as some people say, or write, that one of the reasons they hated traveling in Vietnam was unfriendly, aggressive people, that I found even the scammers kind of friendly. However, I would definitely not want to experience these things again and I learned my lessons. These were basically the only times I was scammed or hustled in Vietnam and it’s a far cry from what a certain prominent travel blogger named Matt experienced and hated when he was in the country.