Vietnam Highlights, South to North

Trip Start Mar 21, 2012
Trip End Mar 25, 2013

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Sunday, March 24, 2013


There are so may ways tourists “do” Vietnam: by organized tour group, privately, on a whim via motorbike.  Some try to see it all while others choose to stay put in the North or the South.

Were were initially inclined to go the latter route and stay in the North, but we were still traveling with Ben's mom, Sally, and Auntie Emily, who were keen to explore more. Thus, we made a group decision to spend our final two weeks abroad sampling the highlights of each major destination, moving from South to North.

South Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City and Surrounds

Simply the classic scene in Ho Chi Minh City: millions of millions of scooters buzzing about! 

Cyclos, the rickshaw bicycles once very common in Vietnam, are a dying mode of transportation, especially in HCMC.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is both beautiful and chaotic. It defines urban living and defies what most North Americans would consider possible for population density. Unlike many other SE Asian cities, HCMC bears its French influence in the form of broad, promenade streets and neo-French architecture. These wide streets still manage to congest with thousands upon thousands of motorbikes, many of its drivers donning miniskirts and heels.

HCMC bears the scars from the Vietnam War. An obligatory visit to the War Reminisce Museum leaves any sympathetic person in stunned silence, disgust, and horror. And these scars are evident on every street: victims of mines, torture, and Agent Orange live out their crippled lives in broad daylight and harmony with the rest of society. But their numbers are impossible to ignore.

A multi-panel and up-close view of two panels from a lacquer painting in a HCMC museum shows the horrors that occurred in the Vietnam War. The up-close shot displays tanks, troops and victims either on fire or doused in Agent Orange.

To further understand the history of this tragedy, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a couple hours' drive NW of HCMC.  The Cu Chi People served as brave soldiers against the Americans, often living and fighting underground amongst three levels of tunnels and underground rooms.

The Viet Cong built tunnels were used as hiding spots during combat and also served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and even living quarters for the guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces.

An example of how tight and small many of the tunnel openings were!

At the end of the tunnel tour, the organizers have built a shooting range where one can pay a small fee to fire semi and full automatic weapons! Definitely another way to spin it! We gently declined! 

Our tour also dropped by a handicapped lacquer factory where war survivors hone their stills to make art. These kinds of handicapped factories can be found all over Vietnam and offer debilitated survivors a way to earn a living.

Another popular attraction whilst in HCMC is to visit the Mekong Delta, a vast region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the South China Sea. The river has and continues to be at the heart of South Vietnam's commerce and industry. Nowadays, much of the traditional way of living has been preserved for tourists. People can visit the Mekong from just a day-long overview excursion to multiple days on the river. Sally and Emily opted for a day trip and enjoyed the tour; but be prepared if you go for it to feel like a big money grab with constant demands for tips! If you can look beyond that, the tour is worthwhile.

Interestingly, the low-lying Mekong Delta is very susceptible to floods resulting from rises in sea level due to climate change. "The Climate Change Research Institute [...] has predicted that many provinces in the Mekong Delta will be flooded by the year 2030. The most serious cases are predicted to be the provinces of Ben Tre and Long An, of which 51% and 49%, respectively, are expected to be flooded if sea levels rise by 1 meter."

One of the many sampans waiting for tourists to board

Typical scene on the Mekong

Aside from the tunnels and Mekong Delta, there are a number of tourist attractions inside HCMC, many of which providing some insight into the history of Vietnam and HCMC.

Emily and Sally with Ho Chi Minh in the the Reunification Palace, which is where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked and was the site of the end of the Vietnamese War when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed into its gates in 1975.

Emily with newly made friends, Franz and Anna (Franz has been on "vacation" and traveling the world since 1997! His "travel endurance" made our year-long trip seem like nothing at all!)

The beautiful ladies and flowers of Vietnam!

Central Vietnam: Hoi An and Hue

Marching to our own beat!

Central Vietnam has much to offer, but most flock to the smaller and beautiful towns of Hoi An and Hue. We were no exception!

Hoi An has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the town is a beautiful fusion of French, Japanese and Chinese architecture. Nearly all buildings (pagodas aside) were painted a warm yellow, often with brightly colored shutters and ornate details, hinting at Japanese and Chinese influences.  

Lindsey, Emily and Sally on Hoi An's famous Japanese Bridge

Hoi An is a great place to relax for a few days. Parts of town are walking streets, and the rest of town can be explored comfortably at your own pace via bicycle. Some patience is required though to understand the fees for entering many of the heritage sites (pagodas, historic houses, museums, etc.) as there are entry fees and combined passes that can be purchased from multiple locations. That aside, it's quaint and historic, and hosts one of the best beaches of Vietnam's coastline.

Locals enraptured in an afternoon game of what appeared to be Xiangqi, a Chinese board game similar to chess

Ben out of the gates in downtown Hoi An

Hoi An is also THE place to go for custom-tailored clothing. Tailors all over the town center and surrounds specialize in one or multiple types of clothing in a range of materials and prices: suits, dresses, jackets, tops, bottoms, and so on. And most can make your custom clothing in just two days! (First day for planning and fitting, second for refitting and fine-tuning). We passed on the opportunity for a number of reasons, but checked out Trip Advisor for personal comments on certain shops, which would be a good idea for anyone looking to do custom tailoring in Hoi An.

We ran into this lovely couple who were having a traditional Italian marriage

Lindsey trying to buy some limes at the market to make gin and tonics (I love cigarette ash in my produce!)

Emily testing out one of the rickshaws in Hoi An. Digression: One of the interesting phenomena of traveling in Asia is all the t-shirts you see people wearing with slogans and statements in English that don't really make any sense. They're mind boggling and they never ceased to amaze us!

A fisherman just outside Hoi An

From Hoi An, we took a four-hour bus ride North to the larger town of Hue. While much larger than Hoi An and not quaintly preserved like Hoi An, Hue's streets were easy to navigate and walk compared to HCMC. 

With limited time (more time would have allowed us time to visit the beautiful and massive limestone caves of Phong Nha and beyond...), we decided upon a self-guided visit to the Citadel and a tour of some of the ancient kings' tombs along the Perfume River. 

Looking back at the prominent entrance to the Citadel

Tourists gawking at the crowded school of hungry fish just inside the walls at the Citadel

These giant suckers are an icon of Vietnam!

Lindsey and Emily at the Citadel, Hue's Imperial City. This place is like Beijing's Forbidden City but way more chilled out!

Sally and Emily going for the ride of their lives in the Citadel!

This ladder structure makes getting on and off the elephant somewhat feasible (this elephant was well-trained: ladder structure = food!)

Ladies from a local tour group hurriedly shuffle along from one part of the Citadel to the other, not really learning anything but having a good time chattering amongst themselves!

The Citadel is undergoing massive reconstruction to bring the palace back to what it once was in it's glory days before the bombings in the Vietnam War. Parts of the grounds have been completed while others are in complete shambles. This building has seen some restoration.

We also succumbed to hopping on a tour to visit some of the royal tombs around Hue from the Ngyuen Dynasty (1802-1945). Though there were 13 kings at this time, only 7 had tombs. On our tour, we visited 3 of the kings' tombs: Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Duc. Each tomb, and the personality of its late king, were all quite unique. For example, Emperor Tu Duc, a poetic and romantic, had dozens of wives in his lifetime and bore hundreds of children, while Emperor Khai Dinh bore no children.

Viva Italia! We met a trio of fun-loving Italians during our tour of the tombs, sharing beta of skiing and climbing stashes in our home country and practicing our Italian in the van between sites. This photo was taken at the Emperor Minh Mang's tomb, which took ten thousand soldiers and artisans to complete the project over four years!

Tourists enjoying a sunny day at Minh Mang tomb. One of the cool things about Minh Mang's tomb was it was designed to resemble parts of the body, which can be made out from the sky, with water as limbs, different buildings for different parts of the body's core, and the tomb itself as the head.

Lindsey joining her statued figures in a life-sized (and backwards) game of chess at Khai Dinh! :) Unlike other oriental-style tombs, Khai Dinh's tomb was built using cement and wrought iron, displaying the Western/French influences on the Emperor from his visit to France in 1922. This architecture was cited as an example of Vietnamese "neo-classicism."

Making incense is a common trade along the Perfume River and something you can visit on our tour of the tombs

Auntie Emily boarding our boat on the Perfume River at the end of our tour of the tombs

Ben making friends on the boat on the Perfume River

Always good and inexpensive fruit available!

North Vietnam: Ha Noi and Surrounds

We thought the traffic was something else in HCMC! Check out Ha Noi!

Ha Noi is Vietnam's capital city. Like HCMC, this northern city is a hub for international commerce and tourism. However, Ha Noi's streets are nothing like the broad, open boulevards of HCMC. In the Old Town, the tourist center, thousands of narrow streets snake around each other with changing street names. Trying to get around in Old Town is like walking through a fun house. These noisy little streets are clogged with shop-front merchandise bleeding over sidewalks and into the streets, while motor bikers overflow the streets and onto the sidewalks. This leaves the pedestrians to perform countless feats to get through one street to the next, like a giant obstacle course that overloads the senses.

Creative rowlocks

Ha Noi art!

Leaving Ha Noi, however, is an entirely different experience than inside city walls. The four of us took a 3-day/2-night excursion to Halong Bay, a must for anyone visiting Northern Vietnam (in our opinion).

Halong Bay and its iconic islands

Halong Bay is a chain of over 1900 islands. These islands of limestone, also known as limestone karsts, jut out of the ocean one after another, making for incredibly calm water and curious island outlines as far as the eye can see.

Halong has two ecosystems: tropical, moist, evergreen rain forests found on the bigger islands coupled with a marine and coastal ecosystem. Take a few steps from the beach and into the tropical rain forest you go.

Being on Halong Bay is a beautiful, relaxing experience! There are dozens of “cruise lines” to take you there, most of which are aboard modified junks, or yachts with giant sails attached to the tops. At first sight, many people complain about the rugged, unkempt look of these boats on the outside, but are pleasantly surprised by the beauty and charm on the inside. We didn't find this to be a factor or issue when choosing a boat, as all appeared to be more or less the same, even if going for a mid-range package over a luxury package. After some comparisons on Trip Advisor, we opted for Fantasea Cruises, an option that was offered through our hotel and one that came with decent recommendations on Trip Advisor.

Sally and Emily enjoying the views from the upper deck of the Fantasea

Ben and Lindsey on the boat and stoked for the topography

One of the many wild shapes formed by limestone karsts

During the first-day, we visited the enormous Sung Sot cave (Amazing cave).

Our tour guide pointed out many of the cave's features that resembled something else (in the same way we do with constellations). Can you guess what this feature looks like?

The cave was huge!

This fella was enjoying the people watching outside the caves

The same afternoon, we hopped in sea kayaks and took a paddle with our mother and aunt.

Auntie Emily ready to do some paddling!

Ben and Emily paddling in the glassy ocean

Sally and Lindsey enjoying the afternoon glow on the water

The food quality and quantity was perhaps the best we'd had yet in Vietnam, which was surprising to us.

Fabulous and colorful seafood!

The second day, we came to Cat Ba Island, Halong's largest island. Here, we took a hike in the jungle and Sally and Emily visited nearby Monkey Island.

Lindsey with one of the nice Danes we met on our boat, posing at the start of our jungle trek

Views from the summit of our trek in Cat Ba National Park

Being in Halong was a great way to finish our trip with Sally and Emily. The temperatures were finally much more comfortable for our North American blood then the heat of Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. The scenery and activities were relaxing and required fewer decisions and logistics to work out, enabling us to just enjoy each other's company for a final couple of days.

Sally and Emily left us the third day to return to Ha Noi and take the night train to the rolling rice terraces of Sapa. We stayed behind in Cat Ba Island for our final couple days of our year-long trip to get a few climbs in at Butterfly Valley on the island.

Butterfly Valley is a tranquil valley hidden away from the rest of Cat Ba Island. A roughly 10km motorbike ride cutting through a 3rd World road construction zone with men using jackhammers into the rocky cliffs above and culminating in steep but paved roads only about 4ft wide bring you to a quiet, open valley and a community of local farmers. 

Looking down on the lush Butterfly Valley from the top of one of the rock climbs

Butterflies constantly made home on our climbing rope in Butterfly Valley

Beautiful limestone walls and caves flank the valley

A butt shot of Ben redpointing Buffalo Love, an awesome 5.11d climb in Butterfly Valley (Center of the Universe area)

Climbers head to the property owner's home for lunch while the water buffalo watches over the valley

How these water buffaloes can have ropes going through their noses like that and not constantly sneeze is astounding

Betsy, the Asian cow, showing that nose ropes aren't just for water buffaloes!

Ben shoeing up for Cracker Jack, a steep 5.11a/b sport climb that would be our last climb in SE Asia (Dragon Cave area)

Looking back at Cat Ba town on our final afternoon in Halong Bay

Ben and Lindsey enjoying our last sunset and final local brew on a secluded beach near Cat Ba town

Conclusion & Reflections

As the two weeks in Vietnam drew to a close, we said goodbye to Sally and Emily, wishing them well on their continuation of their vacation to the rice terraces of Sapa.

Villagers tend their rice terraces and don traditional clothing in Sapa (the skirts almost remind us of those worn by Peruvian women!)

Auntie Emily snags a ride (and a much younger man) on a motorbike!

Sally Kunz looking tall next to a sweet, local elderly woman in Sapa

We flew back to Bangkok early the next morning, finishing our three months in SE Asia right where we started. With just 40 or so of uncomfortable hours cramped inside planes and airports to go, we would be returning to home and to all that is familiar: English as a first language, orderly streets, comfortable beds, and stressed-out people packing too much into their days. We would soon join these people and their ways too—our calendars booked for our first week back with test-driving used cars (and buying one in our first 24hrs back), meeting with old employers, and welcome-home parties. But somehow it all seemed new and exciting. We were ready to rejoin western society, but with hopes we wouldn't forget the friendly and simple times of the East.

During our nearly 13-hr layover in Bangkok, we came to some conclusions about the three countries we visited (Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam). Though Ben's fourth and Lindsey's third time to Thailand, we still preferred Thailand to the other two countries. And we were relieved to again feel some of the comforts of Thailand during our layover (food, attitudes, logistical ease, ability to converse ever so slightly with locals in their native tongue, etc.). The people of all three countries were generally agreeable and hospitable, although we found Vietnamese hostel owners in particular to be a bit on the overbearing side. In general, all places were affordable, though Cambodia and Vietnam seemed to have a greater range of price, meaning it was possible to spend a fortune on dinner, even in the Western sense; whereas in Thailand this was a bit harder. Vietnam was a bit more orderly than the other two countries, but the laid-back atmosphere of Thailand is more inviting than it is annoying (in our opinions). And while we loved Phnom Penh and Ankor Wat, Thailand's breadth of outdoor opportunities like climbing, diving, caving, beaches and cultural sites are simply too much to refuse!  And, frankly, no one could give a massage better than the Thais. So yes, you may see a future blog entry from us yet again from Thailand!

In the meantime, we'll be keeping busy on our home turf, and will be sure to send out the occasional update along the way!

And finally, we want to send a broad and earnest “Thank You” to all of you who supported us, emotionally financially or otherwise, during this incredibly fun year on the road. You know who you are, and no matter how small the gesture of encouragement or interaction may be, you helped make our year the amazing year that it was. You opened our eyes to new things and gave us momentum to press on. Thank you.

More pictures can be found on Flickr:

Southern Vietnam
Central Vietnam
Northern Vietnam: Ha Noi, Halong Bay, and Sapa
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Max on

and now to go fishing for some bauk laou

Max on

"Tourists gawking at the crowded school of hungry fish just inside the walls at the Citadel" now your turn to gawk ... tourist

Pedrito on

I wanna ride elephants too! Can´t believe you passed on the opportunity to fire a machine gun though :) Did you feel any negative sentiments, being Americans?

benandlindsey on

@Per: Yes, I (Lindsey) felt a bit overwhelmed for the first week or so we were in Vietnam. The War Remnants Museums was particularly hard to take, but important for me to see nonetheless.

Dalton on

Amazing Photos you two! :D

Dave $ Aileen Peel on

Thanks guys for all the updates and information on your worldly trips. We really enjoyed having you two visit us in Arizona and hope you will find your way back and maybe we might just find our way to some of the places you have visited. Save Trip Dave

davidkimber on

Glad to have ya' back hobos. Let's hang sometime soon!

Mike H. on

Love reading about your travels. It's inspiring and makes me want to go! See you in the NW soon!

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