Oct 29 No drama flying to Ho Chi Minh city. HOWEVER, I put Oct 30 on the electronic Visa. We were pulled out of line and told we would have to stay in the airport until mid-night. That was unacceptable as we had a 3pm flight to Hanoi and a tour starting the next day. We paid $140 each for a new Visa. What a mess. Then I left my backpack at security. Luckily we noticed fairly quickly. Nha, our guide, was waiting for us at the airport and took us to the hotel. He then offered to take us to a well known Pho (pronounced fah) restaurant called Pho 10 for a bowl of beef (half cooked) with noodles - delicious. Our hotel is near the Old Quarter or the historical civic area where each street was specialized in one specific type of manufacturing or commerce. It was a happening place with crazy traffic and loads of people. Our hotel was near the stainless steel manufacturing.
I would like to go back to Hanoi. Here is a walking map link.
Oct 30 Our first city visit was to the Parliament building followed by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. Ho Chi Minh is a hero to the people for his fight for independence. We then drove to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. A pagoda is a place for worshiping only Buddha.
The Temple of Literature was my favorite sight of the day. It is the Temple of Confucius and hosts Vietnam’s first national university built in 1070 by Emperor Ly. So many beautiful buildings and so peaceful even with the crowds. This was our first exposure to the traditional Vietnam music.
We then visited the Ba Da Pagoda that you would never know was there when walking. It had bookcases full of wooden books. You must bring paper and ink to roll on to the raised type to make a copy. The last temple was Ngoc Son located on an island in Kiem Lake. From the lake we walked to the Old Quarter and around it’s streets to see how the people conduct business. We had dinner here and had wonderful food then walked back to our hotel.
Oct 31 It was a 5 hr drive to the village of Sapa located northwest of Hanoi near the border with China. We walked around and discovered a elementary school. The kids were so cute learning a dance. The hills were so beautiful with the many years of terracing. Rice had already been harvested but it was still amazing. I met some Red Scarf (name of tribe) women selling their crafts. Their English was very good. The hotel was very modern considering how the villagers live.
Nov 1 The driver dropped us off at the Sapa Station. We rode 2 funiculars and 1 very long cable car to get to Fansipan Mountain. The mountain is growing since the equipment and temple were built - cool. Such beautiful views. The clouds move around quickly constantly changing the scenery. We walked more of the surrounding villages and down to the waterfall feeding the reservoir. Nha found us villagers who gave us a motorcycle ride back up to the street - what an exciting ride! After dinner we visited the night market. Night market is an exact description as the locals only had their single bulbs to light up their blankets of items to sell. I doubt there were any “made in China” souvenirs. The clothing of the locals was certainly photogenic.
Nov 2 We drove from Sapa to Bac Ha. Once there, we visited a H’mong’s palace built in a French architecture style. This important person was the head of the opium trade in the area. Tools used for smoking opium were on display. Afterwards, we visited a farm growing thousands of orchids to be sold for Lunar calendar New Year. Back at our homestay, Nha made us passion fruit mojitos which were soooo yummy. Our homestay was basic. Luckily we didn’t have to share the bathroom down the hall. We ate dinner and breakfast with the family. Only the mother spoke English so conversation were difficult but Nha translated.
Nov 3 I planned this tour so I could attend the Sunday market in Bac Ha. The villagers come from the surrounding area to sell their goods and as a means of getting together (future husband or wife). We were sitting on our balcony at the homestay and early in the morning women were walking by pulling their buffalo. What a scene! Then to see all of the buffalo that were there to be sold was amazing. The Tribes each had their own clothing and they were so colorful. The variety of foods, spices and herbs was very different. This was the first market where I saw merchants selling puppies (for security purposes).
After the market we had a 5 hours drive to Ha Giang.
Nov 4 Our morning was spent driving the mountains towards Dong Van plateau. We stopped to climb 144 steps to an overview of Tam Son town and the Fairy Bosom (2 hills looking exactly like green breasts). We stopped at a village to see how linen is made. Linen is used for the villager’s clothing. What was so interesting was the use of a flat rock rolling on another cylinder shaped rock with the fabric in between. The rock put a sheen on the fabric when crushed.
The landscape continues to amaze us with the terraced rice fields on the sides of the mountains.
A mushroom side dish is prepared for us by Nha. Wow he’s a chef, bartender and guide!
Nov 5 We deviated from the itinerary - just too much driving - and choose to skip Ba Be Nat’l Park and go on to Cao Bang. Before we get there, we visited the King of the H’mong Palace built from opium money. The King was allied with the French against the Viet Minh.
Nov 6 The scenery continued to be beautiful. We drove on the Happy Road. In 1962 Ho Chi Minh asked for volunteers to help construct a new road which would eliminate 3 days of travel for the mountain tribes. The road was constructed BY HAND. Ban Gioc Waterfall sitting on the border of Vietnam and China was a military/economic compromise. The border used to be on the top of the mountains. China wanted to take advantage of the falls as well. The river now is the dividing line between the countries. Hope Vietnam got money out of the deal! The falls reminded me of Croatia’s waterfall park. We then stopped at a village where the citizens all make incense sticks. It was amazing to see the process of shredding the bamboo, drying the material used as the incense, applying, drying and coloring the incense stick. Life is hard but they seemed to be happy.
Nov 7 Lang Son, Vietnam The photo above is the main gate of the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh Temple. Love all the colors! UNESCO has recognized a purely Vietnamese belief - worshipping female deities who are the mothers of nature, through the image of “Thanh Mau” (Mother Saint). The Mother Goddess is a supreme deity having the power to create, manage and assist earthly people.
We then went to the local market where I saw my first dog sold as food, a little hard to accept.
Final stop was to the Tan Thanh Grotto.
Nov 8 Gary & I embarked on the Dragon Legend for a 3 day 2 night cruise of Halong Bay. Our cabin was very comfortable and large, our lunch served outside was delicious and the scenery was outstanding.
Nov 9 The morning was spent visiting a fishing village. About 100 people live in the village. Part of the income is derived from pearl farming according to our guide. Because there is a huge corporation on land selling pearl jewelry, it was hard to know how much the villagers were involved. I chose not to go to the BBQ on a beach. I heard later from another passenger that I didn’t miss anything. Dinner was another delicious event.
Nov 10 We disembarked the Dragon Legend and were back on the road to Ninh Binh.
Nov 11 Hoa Lu has been called the Halong Bay on land. We enjoyed a sampan tour along the Ngo Dong River while our boatman rowed with his feet. We passed through 3 limestone caves. In some cases the ceiling of the cave was so low, we had to bend over to avoid scraping our heads.
Our next site is the temple to Dinh Tien Hoang. He unified Vietnam by defeating twelve rebellious warlords and became the first emperor of Vietnam in the 10th century. This memorial was built in the 17th century. Hoa Lu was the ancient capital of Vietnam from 968 to 1010. This temple is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We then walked next door to the temple of King Le Dai Hanh. He dethroned the 6 yr old king, married the Wife of Dinh (see above) and became a King strong enough to successfully ward of several invasions of the Chinese Song Dynasty.
While we walked back to the car, we came across an oven where the owner was making charcoal - Very interesting.
We said goodbye to Nah, an excellent guide. Here is his contact information.
Bui Tri Nha
FB: Schneider Kahl
Nov 12 We flew into Hue and had a day off. We walked to the river and around the park. Many cycle-cabs were waiting to take us around the city. We passed up the opportunity and instead keep walking to a restaurant that the hotel recommended, Madame Thu.
It was a delicious meal - so different from the meals we had in the north except for the Fried Spring Rolls - these are ubiquitous. On the way, Gary noticed a sign for laundry. After lunch/dinner I gathered the dirty clothes and took them off to the laundry/travel agency. I paid 110,000 dong or $4.72 for 3.5 kilos of clothes. They came back nicely folded!
Nov 13 Hue was the capital of Viet Nam in 1802, Hué was not only the political but also the cultural and religious center under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. The structures of the Complex of Hue Monuments are carefully placed within the natural setting of the site with hills representing a protective screen taking the role of “a blue dragon” and “a white tiger” to the right – which shield the main entrance and prevent the entry of malevolent spirits. Within the Hue Citadel were located administrative and military functions of the Empire, the Imperial Residence, Imperial City, and the Forbidden Purple City (royal palaces). It rained off and on while visited the various building. I can’t complain!
We visited the Dong Ba Market and saw a lady chopping up the penis of a bull. Afterwards we stopped at the Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda built in 1601.
Our last site was the tomb for Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty, completed in 1843. Minh Mang’s empire stretched across present-day Vietnam and into Cambodia and Laos. His isolationist policies banned foreign missionaries and bolstered Confucian ideology. Closeby is the tomb of Emperor Tự Đức. He oversaw a dramatically weakened Vietnam as the French strengthened their colonial grip. Tu Duc and his treasures were not laid to rest here but in another unknown location. All 200 servants that built Tu Duc’s real tomb were beheaded and the secret of its location died with them.
Nov 14 We said goodbye to Hue and headed south to the Lang Co beach (voted top 10 beaches in 2009) before a stop at the Hai Van Pass where sits a decrepit French-built fort that was later used as a bunker by South Vietnamese and US armies during the Vietnam War.
We passed China Beach (a famous R&R spot during the Vietnam War) and arrived at the Cham Museum. This museum is dedicated the Vietnam’s indigenous Cham people who were influenced by the Indian civilization. As soon as I started looking at the pictures of the various Cham holy places I knew we had seen them on our first visit to Nha Trang, Vietnam. The Cham were pushed out of northern and central Vietnam. For instance in 1469 the Vietnamese led a retaliatory strike and killed 60,000 and enslaved 30,000 Cham. In 1692 The Cham provinces were by the Nguyen warlords. Emperor Minh Mang (remember him?) annexed the remaining Cham Empire in 1832. Sound a lot like what the US did to our Indians.
Our final site with the tour guide was Marble Mountain. We chose to climb up 108 stone steps to Tam Quan Gate and looked down on all the marble business below.
The driver then left us at our hotel in Hoi An, founded in 1595 as a trading port. In the 18th century, Hội An was considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia. The town has retained the majority of it’s buildings from the 1800’s only now they are selling to local tourist. Night time is when this city shines. Gary had a hard time with the dark. Should have brought the flashlight.
Nov 15 Hoi An is much different during the day - no happy crowds, no music coming from the bars/restaurants. This pretty bridge was first built in 1590 by the Japanese when Hoi An was one of the biggest trading ports in the region. Merchants ( Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese) came from around the world to trade here.
In the afternoon we caught our flight out of Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh further south.
Nov 16 Ho Chi Min has really changed in the 19 year since our last visit. Instead of Bicycles (See above) and not many cars, now the street and sidewalks have motorcycles everywhere. The type of shops have changed. Today it is 7-11, stores for purses, high heel shoes and the local restaurants. What I remember is plastic everything. Our first site to see was the Remembrance Museum. It is very sad to look back and see the horror of war for both sides. Then we had a tour of the city with it’s French landmarks like the post office.
For dinner we walked to Soul restaurant and had a delicious meal.
Nov 17 The drive to the Mekong Delta took a couple of hours. Then we boarded a small boat (see above) to visit the Mekong Islands. It was all very educational learning about the cottage industries: hearing traditional songs, growing the wood ear mushroom for the Japanese, seeing the bee hives and their honey, the weaving of many different items from the plants that grow in the river, coconut candy, popping rice, and making rice whiskey which tasted a whole lot better than the Laos rice whiskey. We even got to share a toast with the father of the bride at a wedding reception.
The boat then motored us to our lunch location but before lunch we had a 20 min. bike ride in an island neighborhood. The small children would yell out “hello’ in their squeaky voices. We had to make a Vietnamese pancake for our lunch. Delicious if I do say so myself.
Our hotel was a huge building right on the river with a great view.
Nov 18 The boat motored us to the Cai Rang floating market. It took a few questions to finally figure out that this is a wholesale market selling to local merchants. Buying items is done on a large scale.
The retailers knew what was being sold by the item hanging on the pole placed at the bow of the boat. The larger products were tossed from boat to boat, (Watermelon), while smaller products, (onions), were in large bags. The market starts at 2 am and goes on until the wholesaler has sold everything. Then the wholesaler goes to one of his farmers and buys what the farmer is selling while the merchant goes back to his retail store. It’s all about relationships.
The next adventure was to learn how to make dried noodles: a paste of water and rice powder is made, poured onto a hot surface to steam. The limp rice paper is moved to bamboo to dry in the sun for 3 days. The firm rice paper is then cut into noodles. Simple.
We then had lunch and a quick visit to a market and then it was the drive back to Saigon and our Airbnb apartment. The apartment was located in the 4th district and right on a tributary of the Saigon river. The view from floor 16 was beautiful both day and night with all of the lighted decorations.
Nov 19 - 29 Our days have definitely slowed down. I caught up on my Laos and Vietnam journal and deleted photos which are now in the cloud.
We have made several trips to the “locals” food market. Gary only wanted 10 shrimp but we ended up with 1 kilo of shrimp. That was fine as we frozen them for other meals. We bought a live fish where the lady promptly smashed a wooden mallet on the head of the fish to kill it. She then expertly gutted and scaled the fish. We have gone to two different vendors for vegetables - share the wealth. I find this very exciting, we don’t speak the language but they have learned to take out of their pocket the cost of the items we are buying. I’m sure we are paying more but everyone is happy.
Gary found 2 Vietnamese recipes which were delicious. I think Vietnam has a better fish sauce than Thailand.
We walked to Dong Khoi St. It is the upscale side of Ho Chi Minh. We didn’t get far when we decided to have a very late lunch at SH Garden. It was on the second floor and the windows were wide open and the weather was perfect.
We had soft shell crab pan fried with green rice. Think of rice krispies instead of green rice. The main course was Snakehead fish. We took the rice paper and softened it with water. In the middle of the paper we put lettuce, basil, cucumber, the stem of something??? which had a great crunch, noodles and fish. The paper is rolled up around the ingredients to make a spring roll. Dip it in the flavored fish sauce and eat. Yummy but messy. Luckily we had been served a meal like this before so we knew what to do. After lunch we visited the Mart across the street. It wasn’t a grocery store as no produce. It seemed like a discount store with American liquor and prepared food upstairs and clothes downstairs. We bought a few food/liquor items and walked back to the apartment.