Ventures in Vietnam

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Aug 23, 2010

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Ná»™i,
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wednesday, 14th July

Began our day by sleeping late and missing the hotel breakfast. Ah well, we wandered up the road and found a fabulous place called Sozo where we had our caffeine fix to start the day, and some croissants to boot. The café is actually a charity set up which trains street children how to become bakers, and set up businesses etc. Off we went up the road: Ho Chi Minh during the day is a very different proposition than it is late at night. We were transfixed by the amount of mopeds on the streets. Watching people navigate junctions, where traffic signals are merely suggestions, became akin to a sporting event to us where we would pick a person and cheer them on through the madness. We proceeded to wander around the city, taking in the main streets and buildings to get our bearings. Loved the People’s Committee Building in particular – fabulous statue of “Uncle Ho” outside of it. He’s pretty much everywhere to be honest – idolized and memorialized constantly. From there, we went to the Ho Chi Minh museum, which was a bit thrown together and didn’t have much “shape” to it, but the building itself was beautiful – much like the People’s Committee, it’s a French colonial legacy. Heavy bureaucracy here means that it’s fine for the museum curator to have a little nap whilst working. From there, we headed to the War Remnants Museum (previously known as the War Crimes Museum). Obviously it was quite slanted in the labeling of many images and artifacts (“puppet troops” for the South Vietnamese for example), but certainly there were plenty of items on display that didn’t need captions, spoke volumes and reinforced the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Feeling decidedly peckish, we headed back to a café near the Reunification Hall. Despite it being only three o’clock in the afternoon, it was absolutely hopping. Valet parking for mopeds, young people in stylish clothes, and businessmen knocking back the cocktails. We had spring rolls.

Wandered back through the town and stopped at the travel agent suggested by our guide book on our street. Booked tours for the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Went to the “Black Cat” restaurant for dinner – owned by a US vet and is a fusion of US and Vietnamese cuisine. Also home to the world’s biggest burger apparently – tempting, but we passed. That evening, we went to the Rex Hotel (famous for being the site of many a US news report during the war) and had a few bevvies on the rooftop looking at the madness on the road below us. A pretty cool way to finish a fun and insightful day in a pretty buzzing city.

Thursday, 15th July

Up early to go on our Mekong Delta trip. This was a massive highlight. So basically getting a tour in Vietnam consists of standing at the travel agent’s door with a big group, a series of busses pulling up, mass panic as the destination of the busses are not announced (close call for a few people who nearly ended up going to Cambodia when they wanted a city tour), and then driving around the city picking up other groups before hitting the road. Great range of people on the tours – couples, backpackers, families, the bus driver’s kids. We were reminded of that great line from “Back to the Future 2” - “Where we’re going, there are no roads”. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but let’s just say the quality of road wasn’t mighty. On the way to the Delta, we stopped off at a craft shop that employs people affected by Agent Orange. The quality of the work produced was really magnificent.

Once we arrived at the Delta itself, we boarded a boat which took us to a Coconut Candy making factory. The candy was really yummy - it was like coconut flavored toffee. Here, we also sampled snake wine which was a bit like a sherry. Much to our delight and amusement, we then got to jump up on a cart and a little pony burst himself to bring us down the road to a rather horrible surprise - a snake. Some of our fellow tourists were happy to have a cuddle, but Mike and Lizanne decided to enjoy the scenery instead. From there, we got the boat to lunch. The river, although appearing to be filthy, is actually full of silt and sand and lots of boats were dredging the bottom of the river to get the sand. Apparently it’s illegal to do so, but there seemed to be plenty of people at it! Before lunch, we got to check out how to drive crocodiles absolutely ballistic. You could buy a piece of meat attached to a fishing rod for $1.50, and then proceed to bate the croc on the head with it/hover the meat tantalizingly close until he decided to snap. Fantastic stuff to watch, decided not to partake as we enjoy having limbs.

Lunch was beautiful - a lovely traditional Vietnamese pork and rice dish with noodle soup. Mike decided to go the whole hog though and get the local specialty - elephant fish. Again, we got caught out with regard to how to eat it correctly (rice paper, dip and lettuce appeared later on to make a wrap), but it was really delicious. After lunch, the boat took us to have some honey tea at a bee farm, and from there, we had the highlight where we boarded the traditional long boats - real postcard stuff. Unfortunately, this also coincided with the traditional afternoon rain shower of the Mekong Delta, so our guide started to fire back hats and plastic wraps to us in order to keep us dry. We had a lady paddling at the front of the boat, and a man at the back, and they worked so hard to get us to our next spot quickly and dry. A shame that this part was so rushed, but also showed us how hard the people of the Delta work and what they‘re up against! Our next stop was to eat local fruits (Dragon fruit and pineapple particularly yummy!) and listen to Vietnamese traditional singing. Far superior to the Chinese “the cat’s tail is stuck in the door” opera that we heard in Hong Kong. So concluded a fantastic day on the Mekong Delta - well worth it!

Went to a recommended restaurant called “Asian Kitchen” that night. Fantastic food - Lizanne had the traditional beef noodle soup Pho, and Mike had chicken and cashew. We also discovered that giant beers are about $1. Nice. Also bought Bill Bryson’s “Down Under” from a street seller that night - the poor girl ran around Ho Chi Minh city looking for it after Lizanne had expressed an interest. She left us minding her books as she did so, so we felt obliged then to buy it. Although the book is a fairly sophisticated photocopy, we felt that it was a pretty honest way for her to earn a living considering some of the things that happen in cities like this. Loved the book incidentally - have tried to adopt Bill’s sardonic, yet affectionate, tone for the blog!

Friday, 16th July

Off to Cu Chi on Friday morning - a few dirt roads, mad traffic and a craft shop later, we arrived at the tunnels. It’s basically a national park there, and our guide was nothing short of superb. The tour began with a cool propaganda video about the tunnels from 1968, and from there we began to explore the “ins and outs” (bad pun) of the tunnels themselves. They were absolutely fascinating: we saw all the ways that they were disguised, how the Viet Cong set up traps through the jungle to engage in a type of psychological warfare, saw how they scavenged leftover materials to make everything from uniforms to shoes to weapons, and ate a Viet Cong meal of tapioca and hot water (not the best!). We passed on the shooting range part - AK47s available to shoot at $1 a bullet! Also got to see how the rice paper is made - a very tedious process, and got to drink some rice wine (40% volume). They actually gave us the rice wine before we went into the tunnels and we can see why. We got a good pep talk from the guide before we went down as to the various exits along the way. Lizanne got all of about 10 yards and then ducked out the first possible exit! When Lizanne has to stoop down to walk through, you know that it’s a small space. The darkness was something else - absolutely no idea which way was front and which way was back or sideways. Mike showed his bravery though and made it all the way through, even though he had to go on his hands and knees for the majority. Came out in a bog of sweat after though - very hot and intense! Fun bus journey back with a group of girls we met from South Tipp on our tour - they gave us lots of recommendations for Hoi An, and we decided to book the hotel that they stayed in there for our visit. Asian Kitchen for lunch/dinner again (Vietnamese pancakes get the thumbs up!), and took it nice and handy for the rest of the day.

Saturday, 17th July

Up at 5 am to get our flight to Hue in Central Vietnam. Got the bus into Hue Central, and found our hotel. Got upgraded to the suite which was fantastic! Then we headed out to the madness - and there was a bit of madness in Hue. We got our own stalker - a tour guide by the name of Lac who really wanted us to hire him as a guide for the day. He met us before, during and after breakfast. Finally he got the message! We did hire a boat for two hours though that took us down the Perfume River to visit a pagoda which was also a fully functioning Buddhist monk seminary. Amazing views of the river, and very interesting to see how young the boys in training are - no more than nine or ten in some cases. Back onto the boat, and then the hard sell was on. Drinks, paintings, t-shirts - there was no end to the bombardment. Eventually we bought two pictures, and got dropped off at the Citadel. If we had our swimming gear, we probably would have chanced jumping overboard. At the Citadel, Mike attracted a bit of a following due to his ability to see over walls and into cannon that were inaccessible for our fellow tourists. At one point, three children were following us for a good fifteen minutes. The Citadel was very interesting to see, although we felt it could have done with a few signs around the place to let you know more about the function of each particular area. It’s being restored as well at the moment because of damages over the years, but it was still very cool to see the old imperial city.

Lizanne was feeling pretty tired, so decided to go for a nap for the afternoon (in the suite - did we mention we got an upgrade?!). So Mike had to post a few postcards, so off he went into town. Where his cult-like following culminated with a drink with a local teacher who wanted to learn more about where he came from. Had dinner at local restaurant, and packed the bags for the bus journey to Hoi An. Sad to leave the hotel, but not really crying over Hue!

Sunday, 18th July

Best bus journey ever! Hue to Hoi An was epic. The bus collected us at 8:30, and then we drove around town for about 45 minutes more picking up other tourists. No problem there - part of the deal. Then the bus driver pulled in, disappeared, and arrived back thirty minutes later with about eight locals to fill up the empty seats. With a capacity crowd (including a jump seat passenger), we headed south. Beautiful drive through the countryside, amazing long tunnel through a mountain, and mesmerizing coastal views. The action on the road itself was far superior though. It’s not uncommon for a bus to overtake an articulated truck whilst climbing a curving mountainous road with oncoming traffic. These guys would have no problems on the Mass Pike!

Another great feature of bus travel here is that they drop you off at the driver’s cousin’s hotel and try to move you swiftly inside before you touch the ground. Once you pass this gauntlet, you must then negotiate the motorbike taxis, and finally the tailors. Hoi An is renowned for suit and dress making, and Mike and Lizanne were caught by Anna at lunch who promised to give us a good price if we wanted anything from her shop. Being courteous, we said we might drop in, and asked for the location. Anna assured us that Hoi An was small, and she’d spot us in the town. More on this later…

After lunch, we walked up to the hotel. Divine setting and facilities in the Trails - grabbed the hotel bicycles for the afternoon and headed up to the Cui Dai beach. The hotel had a private section where we could lie on beds, jump into umbrella shade if we needed to, and generally just chill out. The water was beautiful - just like a bath. Gone are the Garretstown days where you would get hypothermia in mid-July for merely paddling! Went for a lovely dip in the pool then in the evening, and got ready to explore Hoi An town.

As soon as we got off the hotel shuttle in the town that eveing, our buddy Anna was waiting for us. Off to her shop to check out her stuff. They really put the hard sell on but we declined on getting clothes made - too much of a time commitment with alterations etc over the next few days. Dinner in Tam Tam Restaurant - fried wantons with shrimp were recommended to us by Donagh Hourihan Travel and they were divine!! Gorgeous meal, followed by a lovely stroll by the waterfront where traditional Vietnamese figures were illuminated on the river.

Monday, 19th July

An early start where we enjoyed the buffet breakfast in the hotel, and then cycled into Hoi An. We had mulled over how to get up north from Hoi An, and in true “flash packer” mode, we decided to fly. Went to a travel agent that morning who set it up for us. She very kindly advised us to pay cash to avoid a hefty transaction fee. ATMs in Vietnam are quite a recent phenom (apparently ten years ago there were only two in the whole country), and they didn’t seem to like our cards! In fairness to the travel agent, she took Lizanne up to the local bank to get cash over the counter. So a moped ride and a bit of bank fraud later, we had the flight sorted and spent the rest of the morning in Hoi An. The market was fantastic - lots of hens and chickens about, and we even witnessed a bit of Vietnamese justice on a girl who we think stole something from a stall. Serious pucking and flaking. Beautiful craft shops in Hoi An which we spent much of the morning wandering through.

A nice light lunch as we spent the rest of the day on the beach swimming and in the pool area of the hotel. Back into Hoi An that night for dinner at a fab restaurant - lucky to get a table overlooking the street and life below. Had great fun then with a group of Vietnamese trying to entice people into their restaurant - honestly, one of the girls had a Cork accent (“Come back tomorrow for your lunch, like””). Maybe a Cork teacher in times past made their way through here? Heading back to the hotel, we decided to have a nightcap in a cool riverside bar. Unfortunately it was closed, and despite the offer of a lock-in from the owner, we declined and hit the hay!

Tuesday, 20th July

An absolute scorcher of a day - decided that we would spend the morning by the pool working on the tans. It was like being a rotisserie chicken - lasted sunbathing for about 20 minutes. Frightening heat. Thank god for the pool to cool off in! Off into Hoi An town to our Cork friend for lunch - yummy spring rolls and Vietnamese pancakes. Much needed as the sweat was pouring off us - when the staff of an establishment plug in a fan just for you next to your table, you know that you must be bad! Headed for the airport in Danang after lunch - the road from Hoi An is becoming really built up with massive resorts, malls and hotels. If anyone’s looking to invest in property, this could be the place!

Very easy flight to Hanoi, and arrived in our hotel via bus just after dinnertime. Took a wanderino out and found a fun restaurant called “Alfresco” that served up Western food - it was time for a change! Mike enjoyed his ribs and Lizanne tucked into an old favorite - quesadillas. Us flash packers can’t be authentic all the time!

Wednesday, 21st July

We intended to do a three-day, two-night trip to Halong Bay south of Hanoi for a section of this trip, and we began the day in earnest trawling around various travel agencies trying to find the nicest and best options. Our book recommended a travel agent called “Sinh Café”, so after visiting three other places, we were happy to find one. Booked a deluxe tour for Thursday-Saturday, and left feeling pretty good about our choice. More on this one in a moment…

Headed up to the market area, and Mike was accosted by street sellers who wanted to adopt him. One bartering session over a banana later, we were on our way. Went to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”, where the torture of Vietnamese prisoners by the French was well documented, and the interpretation of the experiences of US inmates was also interesting! Keeping with the military theme, we visited the Military History Museum where lots of planes, tanks, trucks and other paraphernalia were on display.

Back in our hotel, we were greeted by a group of English backpackers who had bought their Halong Bay tour from the hotel staff. Most unhappy, they told us about cockroaches, ants and a lot of aimless bobbing around. They had booked a standard tour, as opposed to us with a deluxe, so we felt pretty affirmed in our decision. However, as we strolled up the road, we came across another Sinh Café tourist office with more irate tourists who had booked the deluxe tour. Then the hearts started to pound. Frantic googling later, we discovered that the “Sinh Café” was once a very successful tourist operator, but the name had since been hijacked by sub-standard cowboys. The hearts were now gone into a murmur. The office that we had booked with was closed, so we retired to the hotel worried about the days to come! Left with no option, we packed the bags and prayed!

Thursday, 22nd July

God works in mysterious ways - due to a typhoon approaching South East Asia, boats were not allowed in Halong Bay and the tour was cancelled. We feigned disappointment with the travel agent, and declined the offers to reschedule. After a spirited discussion on when VAT applies, we got all of our money back! What a sigh of relief! We then visited another recommended agent, and were delighted to find that we could book a specific boat, rather than a package, through this group. A couple of Trip Advisor reviews later, we settled on a two-day, one night visit to the bay from Saturday to Sunday, giving ample time for the typhoon to clear off.

So with the day free, we decided to do our own little Ho Chi Minh trail, and go up to his mausoleum and the famous “stilt house”. Unfortunately we weren’t able to enter the mausoleum and see the embalmed body as it’s only open a few mornings a week, but it was pretty cool to see the structure itself. Weirdly enough, reminded us a lot of the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. From there, we wandered around the surrounding area and looked at the very interesting One Pillar Pagoda, and then we went to the Presidential Palace. Ho Chi Minh decided that the palace was too decadent, and so lived in a purpose-built peasant-esque stilt house in the palace grounds. Very interesting to see - the fact that it’s a tourist attraction now means that there are souvenir stalls around it, and certainly indicative of the new Vietnam that a communist icon is now abutted by a Pepsi stall!

A very fun evening then where we explored the French Quarter where lots of the embassies are located, and happened upon a newly-opened restaurant called “Annie’s Corner”. Filet mignon for $5 in a beautiful setting worked fine for us! It certainly beat the prospect of battling cockroaches in a typhoon. From there, we went for ice-cream, but we have yet to top the “Big Island Dazzler” of Hawaii fame! A quick nightcap in a tiny bar where three fantastic musicians were keeping the crowd in good spirits. Mike even joined in, and regaled everyone with a great version of “Maggie in the Woods” on the fiddle. I don’t think the Vietnamese have been too exposed to Irish traditional music as of yet, but Mike laid a solid foundation for them!

Friday, 23rd July

Having acquired a “bonus” day in Hanoi, we had a little bit of a lie-in, and began our day by visiting the Temple of Literature, which was home to the first university in Vietnam almost 800 years ago. Really well laid out, and fascinating to see how students rose up the ranks to become doctors of Confucianism. An exam in front of the king makes the Leaving Cert look like a bit of a doddle! After lunch, we headed for the Water Puppet Theater. Water puppets are a traditional form of Vietnamese art, and were first developed by farmers in the paddy fields. This was a real highlight - the music was excellent, and the various scenes were celebrations of rural life in Vietnam. The puppeteers work incredibly hard as well: at the end of the performance, they emerged from behind a curtain, waist deep in the water. Hopefully it was warm for them!

A real treat for the evening - being the best husband ever, Mike took Lizanne to the five-star Sofitel Metropole Hotel for dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant. A fantastic dining experience with really lovely staff and a great atmosphere. There was a huge international conference in Hanoi this week, so lots of foreign dignitaries mulling around. We dined next to the foreign minister for Cambodia. Not too shabby! Got a Vietnamese traditional tasting platter to start with - felt pretty good about ourselves that we had sampled most of the food on offer already!

Saturday, 24th July

It was lovely to wake up and look forward to our trip to Halong Bay! We were collected from the hotel by the bus, and enjoyed the journey south-east from Hanoi. Highlights of this three and a half journey included a traffic detour due to an accident on the highway through a series of villages (we got the sense that the traffic coming through was the most exciting thing to happen there in a number of years), and seeing how Vietnamese transport cattle. Nearly impossible to explain but basically: farmer on the front of the moped + cow on the remaining seat + ropes = day at the mart. Found a video online that sums it up well!

Arrived in Halong Bay safe and sound anyway, and got a smaller boat out to our junk. Beautiful seafood lunch on board, and then we were on our way. Although it was a little overcast, the vistas in the bay were astounding, and we sailed to the “Amazing Cave”. Fantastic stalagmites and stalactites there, and very cool shapes and interpretations of the limestone deposits. Turtles, buddhas, hearts and fingers all on view thanks to nature! After this, we took a kayak and explored the bay ourselves, swinging by a few of the floating villages on the way. A really different way of life to anything we had seen before - saying that, we did notice televisions inside a lot of the houses!  Again, indicative of the direction that Vietnam is going in. Spent the rest of the afternoon swimming alongside the boat, so worked up a great appetite for dinner. Great fun on the boat for the evening - Aussie, Vietnamese and American fellow passengers so lots of interesting and friendly people on board.

Sunday, 25th July

Woken early by our guide for brekkie, and then we set off on the seas again. Lovely and relaxing trip through the bay - the sights seemed to be a lot more vivid and close than they were the previous day, and Mike got some excellent photos despite the slightly dull conditions. The boat docked in Halong City, and we went for lunch before returning back to Hanoi on the bus. We got an entire row of the bus to ourselves, so it was great to be able to stretch out! Suitably tired when we arrived back, we took it easy for the evening as we have a pretty tough day or two ahead of us to get to Ko Tao in Thailand! Vietnam was hugely enjoyable - great country, lovely people and we’d definitely recommend it. Sad to leave here, but looking forward to some Thai curries and some scuba diving!

More photos available here:

Enjoy the below video as well!

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Eoin on

Will read the blog later - just wanted to be the first to get the happy birthday wishes in there Lizanne :) The big 27 on the 27th!!

Mikey - hurry back, Cork Boston needs you!!

Maura on

Next in to wish you a Happy Birthday Lizanne!X

Doreen M on

Again anothe excellent blog!! And again love the pictures.

Mum and Dad on

Firstly, happy birthday, Dolly!
Brilliant blog! Vietnam looks fantastic! xx

Tadhg on

And another Happy Birthday wish !!! Phew, made it this year!

Cheryl on

i have Bill's book if i knew ye were looking for it! Trip sounds and looks amazing, feet are V itchy! Happy Birthday Lizanne :)

Margaret Quane on

Belated Happy Birthday, Lizanne.
Everything looks and sounds fantastic!

Miriam Farrelly on

Do you have to flaunt your excessive happiness and good fortune so blatantly! Bitter, Not MEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

eamonn and liz on

mea body could suffer from a feeling of being left out!!! it looks fabulous doreen & myself joining arthur for match sat, living in hope of another day
out with kerry team,have a great time until we hear from ye again love us

Jean on

Belated Happy Birthday Lizanne!!! looks like ye're having a ball!! xx

diarmuid on

shouldn't pass on a good burger - otherwise a fantastic trip

Eamonn & Liz on

We will have to support our lovely neighbours now. Up CORK ...........................
It looks like you are having a blast....


I'm thinking about travel to Viet Nam, having already been to Thailand and Cambodia. This blog was helpful. thank you

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