VIETNAM

Saigon sightseeing

By on 22nd July 2015

I had been looking forward to coming to Ho Chi Minh City, or formerly and really still to this day known as Saigon. To me it was the place in Vietnam with the most mystery and where we could learn most about the country’s history. By the time we came to Saigon though we were a little bit disillusioned with Vietnam (despite having spent a few lovely days in Hoi An) and just in general, approaching the halfway point of our travel in Asia, we were becoming a bit tired and restless. We had decided that we will not spend much more time in Vietnam, we needed a change of scenery and decided to make our way to Cambodia and then to Bali as soon as possible. But I still really wanted to see Saigon, so here we were. You know you are in Saigon, when you see this:

 

 

 

We stayed near ‘the Khao San road of HCMC’, Pham Ngu Lao Street, not by design, more by luck as that was where we found the best value accommodation. But it turned out to be a good location for us anyway as we could easily walk to the city’s official Sinh Tourist office and arrange for some excursions.

The Sinh Tourist was founded in 1993 and was originally called the Sinh Cafe. It really was a cafe on Pham Ngu Lao Street where travellers would meet and share travel stories – and hence the Sinh Cafe travel agency was born. The agency became so popular with travellers that many impostors and fake Sinh Cafes started opening up all over Vietnam. So when you are in the country, be careful when choosing an organised tour, make sure it is the real Sinh Tourist otherwise you might get false offer or a sub-par tour in exchange for your money.

We signed up for a two day tour – on day one we would tour the Mekong Delta and on day two we would make our way to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penhon the Mekong river via speedboat. What a cool way to get to Cambodia! 🙂 But more about this in my next post.

Before our two day Mekong river tour we spent some time exploring some of the sights of Saigon.

We asked our hotel reception desk to call us a taxi and take us to the Emperor Jade Pagoda. We wanted to make sure the taxi we used was from a verified company – there are so many stories about taxi drivers that are rip-off merchants here. Vinasun is the most trusted taxi service.

Our first stop was the Emperor Jade Pagoda. The pagoda is definitely for the locals, I don’t think there were any other tourists there. While I enjoyed experiencing the religious rituals of the locals at the same time I couldn’t help feeling as if we were intruding on an intimate family activity on a Sunday morning. The pagoda itself was small, but very atmospheric with lots of statues inside and hundreds of incense sticks burning and filling the air with their fragrance.

 

 

After the Pagoda we tried to walk to the Museum of Vietnamese History, which is next to the Zoo. Since there were absolutely no signs in English, only in Vietnamese (which is fine by the way) and we only had a totally useless map of the city (on which the streets were not named and the scales were totally off), it’s needless to say we got lost. We had to hail another cab and try to explain to the driver where we tried to go to. Explaining it was not easy. The driver spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese. We pointed at the map, we tried to use words like ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’, which we thought were pretty universal, but nothing. After driving around for a while he first took us to the wrong place. Then more pointing and more loud repetition of the words ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’ and ta-da, somehow we ended up in front of the museum! 🙂

The museum was really lovely actually, but we could only enjoy it for 45 minutes as it shut for two hours for lunch and a bought ticket was not valid for the whole day only for one entry, so we couldn’t return. As we exited the museum, we went straight to the zoo.

 

 

Well, what can I tell you about the zoo. It was pleasant enough and it was obvious that this is where families come for a nice Sunday afternoon with their children. We enjoyed walking around, but mainly for the beautifully landscaped public spaces rather than the animals themselves. While the animal enclosures were passable, the zoo still made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially as we got to the elephant enclosure. After learning more about the issues of South-East Asia’s elephants I was a bit more sensitive about seeing these beautiful animals in such an unnatural environment, especially that almost every single one of them were clearly mentally unstable! They were constantly swaying back and forth with their legs chained to posts as a nearby loudspeaker blasted dance music all day. It was heartbreaking, especially as the locals and even some tourists were totally oblivious to this and thought the elephants were dancing to the music! I couldn’t really watch, so we quickly moved on. I think what this zoo reminded me mainly of what zoos were like in Hungary when I was a kid about 25-30 years ago: little regards for animal welfare from the zoo operators and visitors’ ignorance on animal issues. Times have changed though, and while Hungary moved on with its zoos it seems like Vietnam hasn’t yet. Although a bit of Google research has revealed that the Saigon Zoo will be closed shortly and all the animals will be moved to a larger scale safari project, which sounds promising.

In the afternoon we went for a walk in Tao Dan Park, which is a beautifully manicured little park. The grass was so inviting, we wanted to have a little sit down for 5 minutes but as soon as we sat on the grass an official looking fellow turned up and told us we couldn’t do that! But there were locals sitting on the grass, so not sure what that was about .. 😀 We also desperately needed some water and Adam went in search for a bottle. After walking around in the area for about 20 minutes, he returned with a teeny cup of fizzy drink. He said the only person he found selling water was a lady on the street who wanted a ridiculous amount of money for a small bottle. Adam was so offended by the price that he just walked off… He came back with an equally expensive cup of fizzy drink, but it was the principle.. 🙂

 

 

 

From the park it was a short walk to the War Remnants Museum. I looked at the map and had a rough idea how far away it was, in which direction and how long it would take to walk there. While walking we were constantly beeped at by taxis and shouted at by cyclo drivers for a lift. We told everyone politely ‘no thank you’ and most of them moved on immediately, except one man who told us we were going in the wrong direction and for 100000 dongs he would take us to the museum. Now while that may only be about £3, taxis in the city cost around 30000-50000 dongs for an inner city journey and I immediately knew he was up to something. I firmly told him ‘no’ and walked on. I think Adam was sick of walking and would have gladly taken the ride, but my cynicism won over. Also as we got to the museum it was clear the driver would have literally ‘taken us for a ride’ as we were going in the right direction anyway and it took us precisely two more minutes to reach the museum.

War Remnant Museum was humbling. And shocking. The photograph exhibitions were thought-provoking and horrendous really. What went on in Vietnam in those years of the Vietnam War seems incomprehensible, how could something like this ever happen? And Vietnamese are still very much feeling the effects of its atrocities today. I want to give a balanced opinion of the museum though and to me it also sounded a lot like communist propaganda in certain cases. But that still didn’t take away from the power of the exhibition. I actually got a little light headed in there after walking around, reading the stories, looking at the pictures… I had to have a little sit down. It’s a heavy topic and the photos and descriptions are holding nothing back.

As we left the museum, the skies opened and a massive thunderstorm ensued. The rain was coming down really hard so we decided to hop into one of the taxis that were lining up outside the museum. Wrong decision!! We let our guard down and went for the first car, instead of making sure it was a trusted company, like Vinasun. Within about 3 minutes we knew the guy fiddled with his meter as we both watched it jump from 30000 dongs to 36000 and then up and up and up in quick successions…while we were sitting in traffic!! We quickly looked at each other to make sure we both saw that, and Adam told the guy to stop the car immediately! I think by this time in the day, we got a bit fed-up with people trying to scam us, so we were like ‘we’re taking no bull*shit’, pointed at his meter, threw 30000 at him and jumped out the car into the pouring rain. We waited for the first good taxi, hailed it and headed back to our hotel. No-one messes with us!!! 🙂

In the evening we had the most amazing pho in a pho-specialist fast food joint. It was amazing and it had purple noodles 🙂

 

 

I know that in a couple of days we spent in Saigon we hardly scratched the surface of this very complex city. But we did our best. Looking back I think I actually prefer Hanoi as a city, and I never thought I’d say that. We weren’t quite done with Vietnam yet however, we still had the Mekong Delta to discover .

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Hoi An – town of lanterns and tailors

By on 16th July 2015

Hoi An was hands down our most favourite place in Vietnam.

It is one of those towns that you just don’t want to leave and want to stay to soak up the atmosphere, savour the local delicacies, sip Vietnamese coffee, walk around in the beautiful streets every day. Hoi An also looked to me a lot like a ‘toy town’. I call places ‘toy towns’ when they appear to exist solely for tourism, as if there were no locals actually living there, only coming in every morning to open up souvenir shops and restaurants for the flock of tourists and then at the end of the day the whole city shuts up and goes quiet as the locals go back to live their real lives in real cities. Of course this is untrue and I am sure plenty of people do live in Hoi An. It just doesn’t feel that way to me. Another city I could describe this is Florence in Italy (one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world), but just on a much bigger scale. Places like this, ‘toy towns’, make me think: what would happen if the tourists stopped coming one day…? Of course it didn’t used to be like this: Hoi An used to be a very important port town, but now it exists almost exclusively for tourism.

When you first see Hoi An, its foreign influences are evident: it looks a bit like a European town, but with a real and very well preserved local flavour. As you walk further and further into the old town it has more of a Japanese and Chinese feel to it. The town is situated over the Thu Bon River, with one side being a lot more quiet and the other the more touristy side where the old town is. We stayed on the quiet side, which was perfect, we could then just walk over the river for the day to explore the old town. When walking over the main bridge there is a ticket office where you can pay a small fee and buy a day visitor ticket. This is basically a fee towards the upkeep of the old town, which seemed very fair to me. It also gives you free entry to 5 museums or historical places or temples within 24 hours. It;s a great way to see a town. The whole ancient town is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed town. Apart from being incredibly beautiful, nowadays it is most famous for two things: its tailor shops and its lanterns.

You cannot visit Hoi An without noticing the lanterns hung up everywhere. The Vietnamese believe that hanging a few lanterns in front of their house will bring happiness to their family. Even during daytime, the beautiful colourful lanters of all shapes and sizes hang on every building, street, by the river, over coffee houses and temples… they are everywhere and they are delightful! But it is during nighttime when they truly come to life as they light up the whole town. It’s a pretty magical sight and if you are lucky enough to be in Hoi An during a full moon celebration, all other lights of the town are switched off and only lanterns and candles light up the streets.

 

 

 

And while I knew all about the lanters before arriving, I must admit I did not know the towns famous tailor traditions. The town is full of tailors and tailor shops where you can get measured up and good quality tailor fitted clothes made. Even if you are not aware of this, once you are near enough the town you will soon know of it. We first heard about the tailors when in Hue a local asked us where we are going next and as we answered ‘Hoi An’, he proceeded to tell us we must go to his friend who is a tailor and get clothes made. We didn’t really understand this at the time.

Then at Hue train station as we were about to board the train towards Hoi An, someone else also approached us and asked us if we wanted some cheap tailor made clothes, because he knew someone in Hoi An… By now we started to cotton on. Then as we made our way from Danang station to Hoi An in a taxi, at one of the junctions a young woman jumped into the taxi (apparently a friend of the driver’s and was just helping the driver with the directions to the town, yeah right… ;-))  but she quickly started questioning us about what we wanted to shop for and if we wanted some clothes, especially if Adam wanted some new suits…. As soon as Adam told her he was a builder and didn’t need suits she immediately looked disinterested and gave us a look of  ‘but if you are a builder and not businessman, how can you afford to travel, you are not rich…’ 😀

Once we arrived at our hotel in Hoi An the receptionist guy quickly told us to go to his friend’s shop who will make us some nice suits and clothes and then as soon as we stepped out of the hotel to go into town another young woman rocked up by our side and tried to persuade us not to go into the tailor shops but instead go to her aunties stall at the market who will make us a nice suit and some clothes for cheap…… Phew…. We hadn’t even stepped foot in Hoi An ancient town and already we had to say no to suits and clothes at least a half a dozen times, some times it was easy to ward off unwanted sales-talk and other times they were really persistent and had to be very firm with them. Of course once you are actually walking around Hoi An and see the tailor shops it is very quaint and very inviting. No sales talk needed, you will want to go in and get some lovely affordable clothes made. So yet again, this pushy sales technique from the locals that I had already described just doesn’t work. Well maybe it does work with some tourist, otherwise surely they wouldn’t bother right?! If you do go to Hoi An, please be very careful: almost everybody earns commission from referring tourists to tailor shops and it is a typical tourist trap as the quality or the price might not live up to the sales-talk…Read this article to find out more about ‘The Darker Side of the Tailors of Hoi An’.

 

 

 

Another lovely aspect of Hoi An is that it is only 3 km from the coast and the nearest beach. We rented bicycles and rode to An Bang beach and had a fab day frolicking in the sea. The sand was fine and white, the sea was choppy but a lot of fun trying to keep upright and not loose my bikini in the waves and we had lunch in the nearby restaurant that was sold to us with the free use of a sunbed. Again saleswomen on the beach everywhere trying to sell sunbeds to tourists at every turn. All of them guarding their turf, their own sunbeds, their own tourists. We cycled back to town in the afternoon and got sufficiently sun-burnt on the 20 minute ride in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

 

The road leading from Hue to Hoi An is the famous Hai Van Pass made most famous by Top Gear. To travel to Hoi An along this pass you can either hire a private car (this is the most expensive option, but the car can stop anywhere you want) or get the train (The Reunification Express between Hanoi and Saigon) to nearby Danang station (less expensive and still has lovely views). We got the train and it took 2 and a half hours and cost 260000 VND per person (approx £8) for a soft seat in an air-conditioned carriage, very comfortable and affordable. If you are more adventurous you can hire a motorbike and follow in the tyre-tracks of Top Gear. There are also many motorbike tour companies operating in Hue on the back of Top Gear that will offer to take you over the Hai Van Pass, just make sure you research the companies well before signing up for anything.

 

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