To view this entry, Somewhat Of A Travel Guide - Part 2, please access this link: http://www.eyeonhanoi.com/Eye_On_Ha
Chao for now.
This blog begins as I sit on the balcony of our bungalow at the Coco Beach Resort in Mui Ne, about 200km east of Ho Chi Minh City. In line with the location, and the holiday nature of my being here, the focus of this entry is going to be on places me lady and I have visited since our arrival in Vietnam, and my thoughts on them.
Come late May, we will have officially have been in Hanoi for two years. When I look back at places we have visited during these two years, too be honest, I am a little disappointed with how little I have seen of the country so far. Ok, we are working people now so spending months visiting every nook and cranny of the country like backpackers are able to is not going to happen. Even still, there are many weekends that have passed that could have seen an extended short break incorporated - but we haven't. But, when I look into the wee cot beside my resort bed, I remember why this is so. Ah yes, the wee one. Me lady is normally an awesome traveler. One of these people who can sleep for hours on planes. Don't you hate these people? I must be bordering on insomniatic sometimes, and aircraft exacerbate this in me. I can spend the 10 hours of the Singapore to NZ flight staring at the seat in front of me. No matter how exhausted I am, I am unable to sleep in them. Even business class seats do not work for me. Anyway, I digress. Come me lady falling pregnant, she suddenly did not travel well at all. And so close to 4 months after arriving in Hanoi, jumping on planes, trains, and automobiles was not the inviting prospect it normally is for us. Then when the wee one did arrive, well, that really put the brakes on travel for a while. Well, actually, we've traveled a lot since she's been born - just not so much around Vietnam (family trips back home mainly).
As a result of this realization of a lack of Vietnamese escapades, we recently sat down and came up with a list of all the places we wanted to see before we leave Hanoi, and have planned out how we are to tackle these in the 12 months (or more?) left on our plate. We have some fun months ahead planned.
Before I go any further, may I briefly allude slightly to the backpacker version of traveling? Post university I spent my money and spare time on flying, so I never really did any serious backpacking. I met up with some backpacking friends of my younger sister in Hanoi last year. What an insight! Maybe you do not go backpacking to see the world - I got the impression from these guys that for a large number of backpackers, it's one massive pub-crawl with the world as a backdrop. Not much of it which you see as you recover from hangovers. On recounting this to some friends of mine who backpacked in their 'youth' they did recall they had to revisit places later in life to actually see what they were like outside of the drinking establishments. Nonetheless, it did seem like a fun way to travel the world - and I do feel I missed out on something there.
Interestingly, one of the Vietnamese words for backpacker translates to 'scruffy-person'.
Right, before this blog goes over one page, I had better drag myself back on to the topic at hand, lest I decide one day to submit this for some essay competition and I get marked down for not keeping to it.
Let's attack our holidays to date in chronological order. As in, the order in which we have visited them. Oh, and just one point before I continue. This is by no means a comprehensive essay on travel in Vietnam. You can refer to the Lonely Planet for that. This is simply a quick 'my impressions of' essay. And I have chosen to be honest in my opinions - I want to move beyond dressing up rubbish with flowers….that's me lady's job. I get a bit tired of this 'trying to make everything seem rosy'. And once again, no photos folks - there are a million photos on a million web sites that you can check out if you want.
So, let us begin.
If anyone visits Hanoi, then they very likely throw in a trip to Halong Bay. And it is lovely. We have been there twice now. Are you familiar with those images, in many a period movie set in Asia, of small limestone islands towering out of the sea with junks floating elegantly through them - well, this is it. It is perhaps Vietnam's most famous visitor site. And it is pretty impressive. The Vietnamese are very proud of Halong Bay. So much so that now there of adverts asking people to 'Vote Halong Bay one the Seven Wonders of the Natural World'. How bizarre I thought to myself when I first saw this. I always thought that the Seven Wonders of the World would be something greater than a verdict arrived at by some popular vote. Based on that vote, Halong Bay has got to be in good running - Vietnam can supply 80 million potential native voters alone! In fact, on checking out www.new7wonders.com it is currently sitting at number one! Poor old Franz Josef Glacier in sweet home New Zealand has a mere pool of 4 million potential native voters. On another note, I might add that I think New Zealand as a whole should be entered as one entity. Anyway, it really is trivia.
I am aware of two ways to see Halong Bay. By far the most common way is boat - most of which are designed like an old junk. And what a lovely way to see these islet jewels it is. Depending on how many other people you are sharing the boat with, it can be a peaceful serene journey through the islands. Some people do the visit as a one-day trip from Hanoi, but I always recommend the overnight option. For one, staying overnight amongst these geological wonders, and waking up to them in the morning is quite something. Perhaps more crucially, driving there and back from Hanoi means 3 hours of horror on the roads - you need a tranquil night on the junk with a few gin and tonics to prepare your self for the drive back to Hanoi.
There is a second, little known about way to Halong Bay from Hanoi. An option that not even many long-term expats in Hanoi know about. Across the Red River from Hanoi is the little known Gia Lam airport, out of which every Saturday morning flies a large, old, scary looking Russian helicopter. I had a look inside this beast in it's hangar recently and it ain't first class (actually, the airplane geek in me thought it was quite cool). But, if you have only a few hours available (I understand they do the non-stop round trip in 2 hours), and have about USD250 to spend on it, then this could be your option.
Personally, I would recommend the option that allows you to float past the island at sea level and look up at them (even if you do have to put up with that road journey to get there). There's something kind of magic about it. And if you are traveling in a large group, block a whole junk out with you and your mates and have the whole thing to yourself. Grand I say!
Would I do Halong Bay again. Yes I would. The road is a horror, and it really puts me off, but if the company is right it is a fun way to enjoy a gin and tonic, or wine, or beer, with some banter with friends as some impressive scenery quietly floats by you.
There are many operators running trips from Hanoi. Avoid the cheap ones - you'll be stuck on an overcrowded boat. Having said that, even the higher priced ones are not bad price wise. Check out the Lonely Planet for further info.
And one final point. The person who first gets through the bureaucracy of Vietnam, and launches a float plane service from West Lake in Hanoi to Halong Bay is going to make a killing. I'd put my hand up to fly that. :)
Nha Trang is closer to HCMC than it is to Hanoi. It's about a 1 hour 40 minute flight from Hanoi. You land at this massive ex-Russian, ex-American airfield whose size belies the mere handful of flights that land there. The remains of bunkers and fortified fighter aircraft parking bays provide insight into this airfield's previous role.
Nha Trang's current claim to fame is that next month (July 14) it will host the Miss Universe, so you might hear more about it (if you follow such things).
To be honest, we were not so impressed with Nha Trang. The beach was very nice. The hotel we stayed in was very nice. The problem is the rest of the place. It has a very soviet look about it. Even many of the hotels along the main drag are concrete monoliths into which not much architectural thought has been invested. There is also the unfortunate park that must be crossed in order to get to the beach. It is extremely unattractive and even includes the odd grey concrete statue of Lenin or someone equally serious looking. Not so nice.
Once at the beach though, I will admit that it is very nice. And, certainly during the period that we were there, the sea was as flat as a pancake and wonderful for swimming in.
We did partake in some diving and the general verdict on this is, if you are living in Vietnam then give it a go just to satisfy a desire to get wet, but do not come here specifically to dive - it's not that great. Having said that, the group that we went with, Rainbow Divers, were the most professional and enjoyable outfit that I've ever done a dive trip with.
So, Nha Trang was enjoyable stay, but I do not feel the urge to return in any rush. We enjoyed Mui Ne, which I'll get to later, much more. Having said this with the potential of Miss World's gracing the beach next month, maybe I'll try to convince me lady that we need to give the place a second shot. ;)
I have addressed HCMC in a previous entry on this blog. Very briefly, you do have to give HCMC a go if you are in Vietnam. It is the country's biggest city, and does provide an interesting contrast to Hanoi. Hanoi, being the smaller more conservative town, with HCMC being bigger and more happening. Even during the hard-core communist years HCMC still retained much of its capitalist flair, and that is very evident today - it is quite definitely the business capital of the country.
Often referred to as what Bangkok was 20 years ago, it has good bars and restaurants, major hotel chains, and the traffic jams that go with cities that were not designed with all this activity in mind. As I read in some magazine once - 'it was designed in the same manner as many other badly designed French cities'.
It has far more high end shops than Hanoi so there's obviously a lot more money there, and I guess this is not surprising. This also means that for those of you for whom a 'meaningful' holiday means walking around shopping malls, then you will be more satisfied in HCMC than in Hanoi - if only for the reason that Hanoi has next to nothing on that front. There are some quite cool Vietnamese fashion labels available all over town, and these are worth checking out. What is interesting about some of these labels is the prices they are asking for - they are obviously aimed at a market willing to spend more money than I am on clothing.
As with many other Vietnamese locations, there are a number of options available for the war buff. A must see is the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were a major tool in the resistance against the French, then later the Americans.
Sapa to be honest, for me anyway, was a bit of a disappointment. And this is probably for but one reason. Well, actually, two.
First up, for a visit to the great outdoors it is certainly not very 'get away from it all'. For the walks that we did we had the joy of being accompanied pretty much all the way by kids trying to sell us things. Ah, if they were not so cute, I am sure many of them would find themselves quietly nudged off the edge of one of the zigzag roads.
A second reason is to do with the scenery itself. I found it pretty scarred. As in, a land under development, with evidence of hills being carved out by bulldozers everywhere.
Aside from that, I do enjoy my long distance train rides, and the overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai was fun. If you are feeling young and stupid, have some beer or wine available, are happy to stay up all night, and have no inhibitions about pissing off your fellow travelers by keeping them up all night with your joviality, then that is the way to do it.
At 1600m elevation, the Sapa town itself can get pretty cool, so would make a nice break from the Hanoi heat. It has even been known to snow there occasionally in winter. And aside from the endless accompaniment of under-aged peddlers, the walks through the villages, and rice paddies are lovely. Another attraction is to experience first hand some of the minority people's of Vietnam - specifically the Hmong, in this part of the country. Aside from their very impressive clothing, their other great traditional skill belongs to their young children and their impressive ability to walk with tourist for mile upon mile repeating the same religious chant the whole way: "you buy from me".
I shall return to Sapa again on this tour, but primarily for one reason - to climb Mt. Fansipan (Vietnamese spelling: Phang Xi Pang). At 3,143 meters it is the tallest mountain in Vietnam, and Indochina. It would be cool enough at that height at the best of times, but to further savour freezing weather I am looking at a winter climb - a chance to pull out the serious woolies that are smelling of mothballs. And please note, I suspect that this would be quite a doable climb for most reasonably fit people - mountains of this height in this part of the world (including Mt. Kinabalu in East Malaysia) are not covered in ice so in reality they are no more than a tough walk. Though of course, with the altitude you would want to spread it over a few days.
Aside from Mui Ne, Da Lat is the only place in Vietnam I have visited so far that I really want to return to and explore further. Da Lat was set up by the French as a mountain retreat from the heat of Saigon (HCMC), so in many ways it is somewhat artificial. By artificial, I mean things like it's very quaint, but man-made, lakes.
The town itself is nothing special at all, although there are a couple of nice old hotels that we enjoyed staying in (the Novotel Hotel Da Lat and the Sofitel Da Lat Palace Hotel). There is apparently a very nice, old established golf course, but I am far too young and capable of running around to want to play such a game so I cannot comment on that. J
What I really like about Da Lat is the outdoors. I see the potential for this place to become the adventure capital of Vietnam - if it is not already. There seems to be plenty of opportunity for trekking, mountain biking, canyoning, kayaking, and I even saw parapenting advertised in a few places. It is nothing as hardcore as back home in NZ, but so what - it is a chance to get out and explore another, often forgotten about, side of Vietnam - the jungle and forest. The one time we went, we had the wee one in our Mountain Buggy, so only did a morning trek, but I was impressed - both in the scenery we saw and in the quality of the guides who came with us. So we intend to return for some more serious trekking. If you do visit, I would recommend checking these folks out: www.phattireventures.com
Another great thing about Da Lat is that it is devoid of the endless haggling and haranguing by kids to sell you stuff (see my comments on Sapa). Very nice.
Oh, and Da Lat wine comes from Da Lat - surprise surprise. Vietnam's only wine. This tipple can have good days and bad days, but if you are in the town (or Vietnam anywhere, for that matter) then you are kind of obliged to give it ago at least once - just so you can say you have!
With it's slightly more temperate climate, Da Lat has some agricultural importance for Vietnam, being a major region for growing vegetables, fruits, flowers, and (not surprisingly I guess with all that going on) honey as well. Though of course, you do not grow honey do you!
Do give Da Lat a go.
Dien Bien Phu
Any historian of Vietnam, French colonialism, and the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese refer to it) will be aware of the immense ramifications of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The massive defeat of the US backed French forces effectively led to the end of French Indochina and the division of Vietnam into North and South. The significance of this battle and it's military results and lasting strengthening of the Vietnamese psyche cannot be underestimated. Anyone who is interested in war history would do well to read up on this battle.
Me lady and I recently attended a wedding in Dien Bien Phu. I had held an interest in checking it out for a while but it is a bit out of the way so had decided that it was of low priority. So, lucky our friend's wedding came along. The wedding was great. Awesome. As a tourist spot though, Dien Bien Phu was somewhat lacking. It's interest to tourists is primarily it's military history and it's a long way to go to check the sites out. Vietnamese museums can at times be somewhat disappointing, particularly so the war museums. And why not I guess. Most Vietnamese seem to have moved on from it's tumultuous past and are looking fiery eyed to the bright future of capitalism (yeah… not). It is we foreigners who seem more interested in the violent past.
Anyway, if you are a hard core war historian then my recommendation for Dien Bien Phu would be to take the morning flight up from Hanoi, do the sites is a few hours, and come back on the afternoon flight. There ain't much else to do. If you do decide to stay on a little longer, then I do understand that there is some impressive scenery in the surrounding hills so you could jump on a bike and go check those out.
Dien Bien Phu is often included as a part of a circuit that takes in the whole north western region of Vietnam (which includes Sapa), so including it as a part of a bigger journey is another way to do it.
And now we come to our most recent destination. As I finish off this entry, we have long left Mui Ne. In fact, we left after about paragraph two! J
Aside from Da Lat, Mui Ne is the only other place that I really want to go back to. Perhaps a lot of this feeling is the resort that we stayed at - Coco Beach Resort, but whatever it was we had a lovely time there. It's just a simple chill place to veg on the beach, read a book, have a massage with the waves crashing on the shore, have dinner watching the sun go down. It's easy, affordable, has warm air and warm sea. I found it far superior to Nha Trang for a beach holiday. Ok, when we visited the winds were up a bit which roughed up the water in the afternoons, but I am sure it would be totally flat all day long during certain times of the year
If we were living in Saigon I think we'd be up very often. And please, if you go, take the train. It avoids the hassle of the horrendously scary Vietnamese 'highways'. It allows you to relax and watch the world go by or read a book. It takes in scenery that you cannot see from the road as the highway is like one main street with shops either side of the road all the way - serious, you will see no scenery between Saigon and Mui Ne taking the car. And the train costs VND95,000 each way - just under USD6. Not bad at all.
So that completes what we have managed to see of Vietnam so far. There is still much more for us to see in this land and it's surrounds. Later this year I hope to be able to write about Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Phu Quoc, Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and Angkor Wat.
And as mentioned, I am not trying to be a Lonely Planet here. These are my honest thoughts on places we've visited. Take 'em or leave 'em. And feel free to drop me a line for more info.