We flew Cambodia Air, an 8 plane carrier, from Siem Reap Cambodia to Danang Vietnam. A couple of overhead bins were secured shut with duct tape. The bathroom door literally fell off when I paid a visit. No worries. A flight attendant monitored to ensure privacy. I chose to believe the airlines spends their money on mechanical maintenance rather than interior features. We didn’t crash so I guess I was right.
We pre-arranged a private car for the 50 minute drive from Danang to Hoi An. Along the way we saw one massive resort construction site after another. We were told it was Chinese money. Someone else said Russian money. Anyone’s guess. Just glad these behemoths don’t bleed over into the charm of Hoi An.
Hoi An is a bit like San Miguel de Allende Mexico or Santa Fe New Mexico. The original old town stayed intact during the war. The city took advantage and developed a thriving tourist industry. Lots of shops, galleries and restaurants. And yes, there are tourists here too. But plenty of locals as well. The town is known for its custom clothing industry. There are hundreds of tailor shops to chose from. I had three cotton skirts with matching silk blouses custom made. The turn-around was less than 24-hours. Nice quality at a very reasonable price.
The weather in Hoi An was cool and rainy. For my 61st Birthday Conde signed us up for a 2½ cooking class.. We ate everything we cooked and then some. We had a blast at Vy’s Market and Cooking School
While in Hoi An we stayed at Camilla Homestay The Homestay is literally a family home with four large ensuite guest rooms. A full breakfast is included in the $26 per night room cost. The family, Ms. Nahn, Mr. Chinh and their niece Ms. Hoa, are kind generous hosts. The home, a beautiful old four story with marble floors and a sweeping staircase. The location is ideal. Far enough from the hubbub to be quiet at night and a nice 20 minute walk to old town and the river center. Unexpectedly, the family invited all the guests to a homemade Vietnamese Bar-B-Que on Saturday night. There was no charge on our bill for this delightful surprise. The guest roster included a couple from Great Britain, a German woman, a Finnish couple and Conde and me. I loved the warm hospitality of the home and slept like a baby while under their roof.
Another notable activity in Hoi An is a visit to the Precious Heritage Museum. The museum houses a collection of photographs documenting ethnic cultures in Vietnam. Photographer Rehahn focuses on the faces of women. Directly across the street from the museum is a nice gallery worth a visit.
After 3 nights in Hoi An we traveled north to Hue. A 3½ hour drive by private car. I’ve really taken a liking to this chauffeur driven mode of transportation.
Hue is a little less than half-way between Hoi An and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. At the last minute, we cancelled a forth night in Hoi An to break up what would have been a 7½ drive.
As a disclaimer, we spent less than 24-hours in Hue. With that said, other than its huge historical significance, Hue has been my least favorite destination in Vietnam, thus far.
The air quality is poor, the wide boulevards almost impossible to cross, sidewalks are either torn-up with construction or filled with parked motorbikes. The Perfume River is brown and littered with debris. Definitely not a pleasant place to walk around and explore the sights. Fortunately we booked a stellar hotel that offered respite and a chance to recharge. La Residence Hue is elegant and we nabbed a last minute deal. If you go to Hue, save some shoe sole and use cabs or bicycle driven Tuk Tuks.
The Hue Citadel: Imperial City was established in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long and declared a World Heritage Site in 1993. The complex is huge and surrounded by two moats. At one time it clearly was magnificent. Now, a bit shabby and in need of lots of TLC, it is still worth a visit. The exhibits are well curated and taught me a lot about the history of Vietnam.
Here’s my cliff notes version. Vietnam’s long reign of Emperor rule ended in 1945 when Emperor Bas Dai abdicated the throne and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France. Thus began the first Indochina War. In 1946 France began its fight to regain control of the country. In 1954 the French finally suffered a huge defeat. That same year a Geneva Convention Treaty was signed sanctioning Vietnam’s partition into North and South. US money was committed to prop up the leadership of South Vietnam. When that wasn’t enough, in 1960 the US military arrived in Vietnam. A bloody 15-year war ensued known either as as The Vietnam War or The American War, depending on your perspective. In 1975 the US conceded defeat. North and South Vietnam reunified under a communist government. The economy suffered. In response, Vietnam declared Reformation in 1986 and adapted a more market driven economy. Vietnam’s constitution was amended in 1992 in recognition of the impact of the private sector on the economy. In 1994 the US embargo on Vietnam was lifted and in 1995 diplomatic relations with the US were reinstated. Today, the economy of Vietnam thrives and memories of the war seem a distant past.
The Hue War Museum was shuttered-up. The only remaining exhibits on display were on the grounds and unattended.
For dinner, our hotel recommended a local family run restaurant called Le Hanh on Tri Phuong right off Ben Nghe across from the market. Not much ambiance but definitely worth the visit. Order the spring rolls and you can assemble them yourselves.
What grows on a Curmudgeon On The Couch…
The Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap Cambodia is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. I cringe to think we almost did not go there after reading reviews about the site being too touristy. There are over 100 monuments in the area created by thousands of artisans starting more than 1,000 years ago. It is the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia and deeply touched my soul.
Prince Jayavarman II claimed independence from Java founding the Angkor Kingdom in AD 802. About the same time as Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor. Jayavarman II declared himself to be the first Khmer God-King, a tradition which continues in current times. The reigning monarch identified with Shiva, the King of Hindu Gods.
After a succession of leaders, Suryavarman II became leader of the Angkor Empire. He hugely expanded the Empire and was responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat between AD 1113 and 1150. Suryavarman II was relentless in attacking and driving out the Champa State. In 1177 the Chams took revenge and sacked Angkor.
Then came Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218). After four years of war he drove out the Chams and expanded the Khmer Empire even further. He constructed Preah Khan to use as a temporary seat of government until Angkor Thom could be completed. Jayavarman VII built hospitals, rest houses and a complex road system. The Angkor complex covers 77 square miles.
Bas Reliefs in Angkor Wat
In 1218 the Empire began to fall into decline which continued over the next two hundred years. The temples were decaying and the once magnificent architectural system fell into ruins. Angkor became uninhabitable and the royal capital was abandoned to the Siamese in 1431.
The Angkor Empire lasted for about 500 years. There is much speculation around the fall of the Empire. The Thais were encroaching on Khmer territory making Angkor an unsuitable location. Perhaps the huge population put a strain on the forest and water resources. Some say the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th Century undermined the prestige of the King and priests. The precise reason for the decline of the Empire continues to be a topic of debate.
The ruins of Angkor were reported by foreigners as early as the 16th Century. The jungle had encroached on the structures, but the magnificence was apparent. Over the years the temples were heavily looted. Some of the treasures remain on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
In 1992 Angkor was declared a World Heritage Site and opened to the public. Monies and efforts from around the world have gone into restoration. As I wandered around I decided 1,000 archeologists could spend 100 years and still have plenty of work to do.
This family owned restaurant is just on the east side of Angkor Thom. It is called Ta Prohm (like the temple) and has killer noodle bowls.
We arrived in Chau Doc at 7:00 pm and checked into the classic colonial Victoria Chau Doc Hotel A lovely property. Having traveled long and far we decided to dine in the hotel. The food was okay and a pricey for what was offered. On the other hand, our room was huge with beautiful dark wood floors, a nice walk-in shower and a comfortable king sized bed. At 5:00 am I was awakened to the melodic call of prayers from the Mubarak Mosque across the river from our hotel.
After a quick traditional Vietnamese breakfast we boarded the Victoria Speedboat for a pleasant 5 hour trip up the Mekong to Phnom Penh Cambodia.
When we crossed into Cambodia the Captain lowered the Vietnam flag and raised the Cambodian flag. Soon we arrived at immigration control. The Visa cost per person is $33 US cash. A current passport photograph is required. The border crossing process was slow but painless, thanks in large part to the Victoria’s agent on board the boat. For entertainment while waiting I watched a hen teaching her chicks to fend for themselves, making a big show of scratching earth to turn up insects. One smart chick got it, looking at the others with confusion when they followed mama and waited for her to do the scratching. I figured they were the roosters to be and the quick study was a female.
The Victoria is not the cheapest speedboat available for the trip, but worth the extra money. The boat was comfortable with a nice well maintained bathroom. Refreshments were provided including muffins, tea, coffee, colas and water. Conde even snagged a beer. It was a fun way to travel from Vietnam into Cambodia.
We read a lot about Phnom Penh, much of which was not flattering. Lonely Planet put the fear of god in us, warning against theft and highlighting a story about a French woman who was dragged from the back of a moto and killed when thieves tried to snatch a bag with a long strap hanging from her shoulder. As we got off the boat we braced for an anticipated onslaught and gathered our belongings close by.
It turned out the process turned out to be was easy and calm. Nothing threatening about it. We immediately found a Tuk Tuk and negotiated the driver down from $6 US to $4 US. Negotiating is part of the culture and is a matter of pride for all. Conde still reminds me we overpaid by a dollar.
The Tuk Tuk took us directly to the Plantation Hotel A very cushy and comfortable property.
I never fully recovered from the flu and had a nasty relapse. My health wasn’t going anywhere but down. I contacted my US doctor who recommended a broad spectrum antibiotic. This was available without a prescription in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh story is Conde’s as my version consists of drawn curtains and the bed at the Plantation Hotel. Oh yes, and a short walk to the pharmacy dogged by Conde with a camera. (Spoiler Alert: the antibiotics worked and I am 90% human again).
Conde’s favorite restaurant find. Go figure.
A rooftop bar with a sweeping view of the city.
A few street scenes.
Phnom Penh is filled with French colonial buildings. There are tree line boulevards and lots of parks. As we drove through the town on our way out we saw what appeared to be a blossoming arts culture and beautiful museums and buildings worth noting. No doubt few days here would be time well spent.
The Plantation Hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Seim Reap. He arrived promptly at noon, as requested. The cost was $85 US for the 4½ hour drive northwest. The car was a spotless newer model Lexus SUV. Our driver a quiet, shy Cambodian man with a delightful sense of humor. He anticipated our needs before we could voice them. We couldn’t have been happier.
The area between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is largely agricultural. Lots of cows, family farms and water buffalo wallowing in mud ponds. The countryside offered lots of candy for the eyes.
The evening before traveling to Can Tho I did two things. First I reserved a room at the magnificent Victoria Can Tho getting a crazy good last minute deal. Second, I secured spots for a Floating Market Tour with Heiu’s Tour Company. Both proved to be excellent choices.
The 7-hour floating market tour started at 4:10 am. Seeing the sun rise on the river was worth every second of missed sleep. A picture is worth a 1,000 words, so here goes:
Many of the boats have eyes in the front to ensure one never gets lost. Larger boats bring produce from the fields to sell. Smaller boats purchase from the larger boats and re-sell. The “Seller” boats stay for as long as it takes to move all of their product. Each large boat sports a long pole with a sample of its wares tied to the pole to advertise.
The floating markets are rapidly shrinking in size. The change is attributed to the dramatic improvement in roads and modernization of transportation throughout the Mekong Delta. Simply put, it has become easier and much more efficient to transport produce over land. The floating market commerce is a way of life for many. There are concerns over what will happen if the markets completely disappear.
Our Floating Market tour included breakfast, Vietnamese style. Fresh fruit and a bowl of noodles is a great way to start the day.
Can Tho is a delightful mid-sized city. I would definitely stay there an extra day or two given the opportunity. A lovely waterfront boardwalk meanders from one end of town to the other. Saturday night at the waterfront city center was extremely active and safe. Wedding celebration parties, families eating picnic style with young children wearing pajamas, and couples strolling hand-in-hand mingled with tourists from around the world. The scene reminded me of an active Mexican Zocalo on a weekend night.
We ate dinner on a pier overlooking the river. Conde had frog legs. I had a fresh seafood stew with local vegetables, including bright yellow pumpkin flowers, cooked table side. And, the wine wasn’t half bad either.
Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Can Tho we departed for Chau Doc. A three hour drive northeast on the river near the Cambodian border. Having become Futa Bus Masters, we opted for this mode of transportation. $4 US for the two of us.
Saigon is an assault to the senses. There is an incessant din of honking horns, rumbling trucks, puttering motor scooters, smog thickened humidity, aromatic foods, charcoal fires, incense, and hidden garbage. The sidewalks are filled with Vendors creating and selling everything imaginable. At night the city lights up with color. One can’t help but be swept up in the energy. The city felt safe.
The architecture is hodgepodge and indicative of the city’s history. It’s not uncommon to see a row of buildings with a tall skinny house from the French occupation era beside a 70s building followed by a dilapidated brick structure. The city is divided into Districts, each sporting its own personality. It is not hard to navigate on foot, although locals far prefer the speed and efficiency of motor scooters (Motos). Many wear face masks to protect from polluted air. It is clear these masks can be used as a playful fashion statements.
There are hidden jewels in every big city. Unearthing those jewels can be an exciting part of travel adventure.
While wandering Saigon one evening, Conde noticed an innocuous building. “Let’s go in!” he declared. I followed into a greasy, dank and poorly lit Moto parking garage. After passing through we discovered an elevator along side a grungy tiled curved stairwell. A small group of well-dressed young Vietnamese was waiting for the elevator; another group filing up the stairs. We joined the elevator queue. The door slid open and a full load piled out. The operator was charging 3,000 VND (approx. 15 cents) for a ride up.
Since we had no clue where we were headed, we opted for the stairs. Each floor revealed a handful of shops, restaurants and other businesses run by enthusiastic young entrepreneurial Vietnamese. We sat down at a cute restaurant airing a fun playlist called The Maker (the restaurant, not the play list). Great salads with a nice Vietnamese twist and decent beer selection. And perfect wifi reception.
In spite of being American Geezers, we were truly welcomed. A later internet search showed the building was one of the hippest new retail spots in District 1 for upstarts.
The only way to rent a car in Vietnam is with a driver. With the crazy maniacal “flow” of traffic, this is a very logical rule. We had planned to rent a private car for travel south from Saigon to the Mekong Delta. Lonely Planet says this can be found for $75 US per day. Our search failed to unearth this option. There were cars with drivers, but at triple the cost. We decided to take the bus from Saigon to Can Tho.
Lonely Planet advises the choice for bus travel is Futa Buslines. We popped into a local travel agency to inquire. We learned buses ran every hour from Saigon to Can Tho. A 3 hour ride. The nice travel agency lady wrote down an address. We figured it was the bus station. After a leisurely breakfast the following day we took a cab to the noted destination, a Futa office. Turned out you could neither buy a bus ticket there nor could you catch a bus from that location. Never did figure out what service was provided there. The clerk instructed that we us go to the bus station. She furnished a pre-printed list of addresses with pertinent information highlighted in yellow. I asked for directions to the bus station. “Too far to walk,” she said. There was a line of Futa owned cabs outside. I handed the driver my highlighted paper. We had a fun, albeit unexpected, cab tour to the other side of town where we were delivered to a small Futa station.
I went inside and learned that for 220,000VND (approx. $10 US for both) and a 10 minutes wait we would be on our way to Can Tho. I paid up. A mini van promptly arrived. We loaded, along with 11 other passengers, for the trip to Can Tho. So we thought. It turned out this was a shuttle to the main Futa bus station. As the van unloaded I asked the driver, where to now? “Go inside,” he replied with a broad gesture toward the station. It was large adorned with multiple departure and arrival boards. Our untrained eyes couldn’t figure it out. The PA announcements didn’t help either. Not to be deterred we exited the station and marched up and down a long line of diesel huffing busses, luggage in tow. (Did I mention I failed in my resolve to pack lightly? Well, I did. Notice how I buried this confession?)
We found a bus marked Can Tho and showed an agent our tickets. He gave a perfunctory, almost imperceptible, nod. We trotted along side as the bus edged forward each time the bus at the front of the line departed. I stuck close. This geezer wasn’t getting left behind! During a brief pause in forward momentum the agent took our luggage and stowed it in the underneath compartment. He made copious notes on my ticket, so I figured all was good here. Still, we trotted along every time the bus moved forward.
When we boarded we were told to sit in 4A and 4C. Okay, got it. Just as I was turning to walk down the aisle the official firmly grabbed my wrist. I stopped. The driver was holding open a black plastic sack and the agent pointed to my feet. But of course. They need me to take off my shoes and stow them in the black bag. Done!
The bus had two tiers of seats. Much like bunk beds. Each seat resembled a soap box race car. I settled into the 4A lower tier. Nope. The official ordered me “Top! Top!” his patience clearly being tried. I smiled nicely and used my best monkey skills to climb to the top tier.
Halfway to Can Tho we stopped at a huge warehouse, clearly owned by Futa, for refreshments and a toilet break. As we filed off the bus, we were instructed to don green and orange flip flops dumped on the ground from a laundry basket. The inner child in me delighted as I slipped into a mismatched pair several sizes too big and clomped about the warehouse. I tried hard not to imagine who had proceeded me in these shoes.
We now know the system for bus travel in Vietnam. We arrived in Can Tho safe and sound. What a great city!
In the Mekong Delta Vietnam it is common to inter your dead in an above ground shrine located in your home’s rice paddy or garden area. Many are very elaborate. Birth dates in Vietnam are not important. Death date is very important. When a baby is born in Vietnam, it is automatically one year old. Each year on Tet (Vietnamese new year) another year is added. If Tet falls on February 16th and a baby is born on February 15th, the baby turns two the day after birth. Every year a large family celebration is held on the date of death of each relative. If the person was very old when they died, a bamboo stick is placed on the grave site. This can serve as a cane for the elderly dead to use for making it back to the house to join in the celebration.
Six days before leaving Portland, an unwelcome visitor took up residence in my upper respiratory system. Departure eve my phlegmatic hacking was so intense Conde’ suggested cancelling the trip. “Absolutely not!” I declared, sheepishly remembering all the barb filled vibes I’d launched toward fellow sniffling plane travelers exposing me to unwanted germs. Another life lesson in tolerance learned.
Cheapo Air business class tickets turned out to be a really good deal. No snafus on our way out. Air Canada was the carrier on the first two legs of the trip. From Vancouver to Seoul we enjoyed a brand new 787 Dreamliner with 4 primo pods per row. Perfect for bunking down for a long satisfying sleep and watching the latest release of Beauty and The Beast.
In stark contrast, the last leg of the journey was on a relic from the past. Remember the humpback whale Boeing 747-200 with access to “upstairs?” We are talking 70s retro on steroids. That was our ride from Seoul to Saigon. The multi-tiered seat adjustment switches were located on top of the armrest. Any inadvertent elbow movement would suddenly launch the seat into mechanical moaning with uninvited adjustments. Kept us giggling. True Geezer on the Go memories from days of yore.
When we deplaned in Ho Chi Minh (interchangeably – Saigon) we encountered a man holding a large placard with both our full names displayed in large bold letters. It’s good to recognized?? “Come with me!” he declared before turning and scurrying off towards the entrance to immigration. We obediently followed, speculating over who he was. My gut told me this guy was there to help I just didn’t know why.
With authority, he led us to the official Vietnam Visa area. Following a language barrier-filled exchange, we learned he was from the “Visa Company.” Remember Vietnam Visa Choice from my original Southeast Asia post? We’re still not sure, but apparently the $33 US per person we paid online was for the luxury of a fancy letter and of having an agent meet us upon flight arrival and oil the system, not for the actual Visa itself. Our guide told us we owed an extra $50 per person Multiple Visa application fee to be paid to the man behind window #2. After a short wait, our names were called. We went to window #2 and paid $50 per person to the Vietnamese official. Our passports were returned to us graced with a lovely Vietnam Visa. And we were steered us toward the correct line to pass through Immigration.
Here’s what I think. If traveling by air, you don’t need to do anything in advance for obtaining your Vietnam Visa. Just know you must find the Visa area prior to going through Immigration. Otherwise you will be sent back. Not a disaster but very time consuming. The location of the Visa area in the SGN airport is not obvious. It’s off to the the side. Your Visa applications can be filled out there but there did not appear to be much, if any, customer service. You’ll need one or two (depending upon source) passport photos. We only needed one and the standard US sized passport photos we brought were fine. You will need to be patient. The process is confusing and involves waiting. In retrospect, I’m not at all sorry we spent the extra money to Vietnam Visa Choice for being guided through the system. We were exhausted when we arrived, would probably have missed the Visa issuance area and likely would have proceeded directly to Immigration only to be sent back.
Save your used boarding passes! It is not uncommon for me to toss my used boarding pass after I’m finished with a flight. Don’t do it!!!! Twice we were asked to produce our boarding passes from completed legs of our trip. When we passed through Vietnamese immigration they required our boarding pass from the arrival flight. I had to dig through multiple pockets to find mine.
Hotel Recommendation: I highly recommend the Myst Dong Khoi Hotel in Saigon. It is in a great District 1 location. Staff is extremely accommodating and key staff members are fluent in English. There is a lovely roof top pool and a decent work-out area. It is a quiet and comfortable oasis to recuperate from a long trip and establish your travel sea legs. And, the breakfast buffet is to die for. Make sure you negotiate breakfast included in your room rate.
I’m committed to traveling light. This vow is anchored by an unwavering decision not to check any bags. I’m still queasy about Cheapo Air and its ability to deliver. And I don’t want to lug around a lot of unnecessary crap.
The challenge: Temperatures in Portland are in the 30s and 40s with low humidity. Temperatures in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia are ranging in the high 80s with lots, and lots, and lots of humidity. Temperatures in Northern Vietnam are cooler but variable.
I”ll be trekking and camping in the jungle for several days, fording rivers and swimming in caves while fully clothed. To keep the leeches off, I’ll need to tuck my long pants into boots and wear a long-sleeved shirt. (Think Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen). The temperatures in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park can range anywhere from mid-40s to mid-70s this time of year. Layers will be required. And, according to the Oxalis Travel online brochure, our guides are skilled in leech removal.
A preview of my summer clothes inventory turned up lots of sleeveless tops. I’ve read that in Vietnam it is considered indecent for women to expose their upper arms. I subscribe to the theory that one should respect the customs of one’s host. Plus, I gotta admit my upper arm wings aren’t my best asset. Might catch a heavy wind gust and who knows what could happen then.
Have you ever tried buying summer clothes in Portland during the winter? Not happening. I turned to the Internet. The UPS driver is my new best friend. And, Ari is positive she’ll prove to be a tasty meal … someday … for sure … it could happen.
I’ve managed to narrow down my outerwear choices. 5 short sleeve tops, 2 pair of shorts, 2 pair of light long pants and a skirt. A couple of light long sleeved shirts, and a sun hat round out the basics. I alway take a pareo or two when I travel. They take up little space and serve many function, including a light wrap and beach towel. Any extra space will be filled with the “to bring” list for the trek which includes knee socks and long underwear.
We’ll have to do laundry while we travel. Another fun logistic promising to challenge my known norms.
• It is 7,481 miles from Portland Oregon to Ho Chi Minh City
• Vietnamese call the “Vietnam War” the “American War”
• Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in 1976
• Saigon was the Capital of The Republic of Vietnam until 1975 when it was relocated to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam