March 16 – 23, 2017
So far, so good! Up to this point in our six month journey through Southeast Asia we had been our own travel agents and, frankly, had done pretty well!
No missed flights or trains, no arriving in the wrong city at the wrong time and, in most cases, being able to book accommodation that was well located, comfortable and priced right.
However, when planning our trip from Hoi An to Hue, we decided to use a travel agency that offered a private car and driver service. It had been a long trip and we didn’t relish dragging our bags on and off buses one more time!
Checking online, we found a company called VM Travel and started a Chat conversation with one of the agents. Little did we know that this would develop into a personal as well as business relationship and greatly enhance our enjoyment of the ancient city of Hue (pronounced ‘hway’)
Cham Kingdom Ruins, My Son, South Vietnam
Instead of taking a half day to visit the nearby Cham ruins at My Son while in Hoi An, we decided to incorporate it into our drive north to Hue where we planned to spend a week. It was a bit of a detour but worked out perfectly. At 7:30am we left the Sun Boat Hotel in a very comfortable vehicle with our English speaking driver, Henry, from VM Travel.
The 25 mile (40Km) drive took us over an hour through small towns, farmland and through mountain ranges that surround the ruins. We bought our tickets – 150,000 VND each ($6.50), walked across a bridge to the shuttle boarding area where we were driven to the site. Fortunately, due to our early arrival, there were very few other visitors and we were able to slowly walk among the ruins and get some excellent photographs.
Having visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we were aware of the history between the Khmer and the Cham peoples. In fact, we had seen the destruction and defacing of several Angkor temples that occurred during battles between the two powerful Kingdoms.
My Son, the site of Vietnam’s most significant ancient ruins, was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO.org “During the 4th to 13th centuries there was a unique culture on the coast of contemporary Vietnam, owing its spiritual origins to the Hinduism of India. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower temples in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.”
The site is divided into sections and we decided to spend time in three temple areas only, due to our long drive to Hue. We knew in advance that these Hindu temple ruins were no match for the grandeur of Angkor, nonetheless, we found them historically and visually intriguing.
Unfortunately, the site has suffered damage from several wars, and the bombing during the Vietnamese War is evident in craters on the site including a huge B52 bomb crater close to the cluster of temples we visited. The surrounding forest area is still not clear of unexploded ordinance so signs are posted to remain on the paths.
As we left around 10:00am, the parking lot was completely full of large motor coaches and literally hundreds of tourists were streaming towards the temple ruins! Tour leaders from every country you could think of were holding up flags, herding their group in the right direction. We looked at each other, rolled our eyes and were thankful for our early start!
We continued our journey north on National Highway 1A to the city of Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city. It is situated close to a stretch of pristine beach known during the Vietnam War as China Beach, where American soldiers went for R&R. This area is rapidly being developed by international resort hotels and Casinos.
We declined Henry’s suggestion to stop at Marble Mountain, a series of five marble and limestone mountains considered sacred by the Vietnamese. Marble was previously extracted from the area and visitors now tour caves, some with Buddhist Pagodas, as well as climbing up numerous steps to enjoy a view of the surrounding area. Sounded like too much work for us! Instead we stopped briefly at “Marble Village” which is nothing more than a large shop selling stunning marble sculptures of every size and color. Of course, they are happy to ship your purchases home for you!
Side note: the Marble Mountain caves were a base for the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war, a large one supposedly being used as a hospital.
By now it was time for lunch and Henry recommended a seafood restaurant in Da Nang. Vietnam is known for its fresh seafood and we immediately agreed. It turned out to be a restaurant where tanks of different kinds of live fish, eels and shellfish are displayed for your selection. With help from Henry and the restaurant staff, Bill made a selection for our Hot Pot while Priscilla enjoyed a beer at the table, waiting to be served! Bill then went into the kitchen to “supervise” the preparation!
The meal was delicious! There is a special way to eat and enjoy a Hot Pot and Henry and the restaurant staff helped us make a dipping sauce, also cook the various vegetables, noodles and seafood in the right order at our table. It was the most expensive meal we had in Vietnam but worth every dong!
Hai Van (Sea Clouds) Pass
We still had a 63 mile (102Km) drive to reach the city of Hue and although it would have been faster to drive through the Hai Van Tunnel – the longest in Southeast Asia – we decided to drive over the mountains on the Hai Van Pass to take in the scenic views along the way. At this time of year the weather can be cold and wet and unfortunately our panoramic views were somewhat obscured in misty rain. Nevertheless, we could understand why this road is known as one of the most scenic coastal roads in the world.
After winding up and around hairpin bends we reached the summit where we climbed up to the bunkers and a French fort, both of which were used during the Vietnam War. Due to the spectacular view from this point, it’s a popular location for couples to take Wedding photos – even on a cold, windy day!
It was an exhilarating day for us, the only disappointment being that when we checked into our Airbnb property in Hue we found it was, in fact, a hotel! We had been hoping for a great experience like we had in Ho Chi Minh City but there was not much we could do about it as we had paid in advance for a week. We alerted Airbnb about the false advertising, hoping to prevent others from being disappointed.
The hotel was well located and, after settling into our room (75 stairs and no elevator!) we headed for the DMZ, a nearby bar to relax and watch the world go by. We were excited about exploring this ancient city with the help of VM Travel.
Photo Album: https://goo.gl/photos/LuV1hDqhQ1Qxtu2i8
Feb 11 – March 1, 2017 – Ho Chi Minh City
Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Suddenly it struck us! One more country to explore – Vietnam – and then our six-month journey would be over! We had one Big Question … Where had the time gone?
We traveled from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City by bus, a journey that takes about seven hours. Two different bus companies drive this route and the one we chose was OK but Bill found it very cramped. One reason for our decision was that there was an English-speaking Tour Guide on board who would give commentary along the way. It was helpful that he spoke English at the border crossing but we only had two brief announcements enroute! The journey was uneventful and the border crossing, which took about an hour, went smoothly.
The first thing we noticed was the Hammer and Sickle flag flying next to the Vietnamese flag. The brilliant color is quite eye-catching and reminded us that – Yes – we were in a Communist country!
Ho Chi Minh City
By now our arrival time was delayed an hour and our Airbnb Hostess was meeting us at the bus station so the guide kindly phoned her with the new arrival time. Expecting a regular bus station, we were taken by surprise when the bus drew alongside a Park and bags were unloaded (actually more like ‘dumped’) on the sidewalk! With the help of our hostess and a friend of hers, we retrieved our bags and walked across the park where she called for a “Grab Car” (more on this later) to take us to her home.
We were in store for a very special welcome to Vietnam!
We had booked the Airbnb for three nights, with plans to move on to a guest house or hotel after that. Our hostess decided to meet us at the bus station because her house is located in an alley away from the center of the city and, knowing that we were ‘older’ she felt that we would have a difficult time finding it. She was right!
The car left us at a point where the road narrowed so only scooters and pedestrians could navigate! We continued on foot for some four minutes turning right and left several times down the alleys until we came to her lovely, new (3 months old) house. She served us tea and cake then told us to go upstairs and rest until dinner was ready. This is not part of the service of a B&B and we felt very spoiled! That evening we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal and slept soundly in a very comfortable bed. We immediately felt at home here in Ho Chi Minh City.
Not surprisingly, we bonded quickly. Our hostess spoke perfect English and has worked at upscale hotels in Macau. She is married to an American who is currently in the U.S. She and her friend helped us get a Sim card for the cell phone and explained how the Grab Car system worked.
Grab Car is similar to Uber and a little cheaper than a taxi. When you order it you receive the plate number of the car on your phone and also have to confirm with the driver. This proved a little difficult for us since most of the drivers speak no English. We did use Grab Car on a couple of occasions but had to get help from other people due to the language barrier. The cars looked brand new and were spotlessly clean! Using their GPS they can get you wherever you want to go. You can also use Grab Bikes (scooters) to get to your destination but we decided not to try this!
We were pleased to learn that our room was available for additional nights so set about exploring and doing some sightseeing. We quickly became familiar with the neighborhood and spent time in different coffee shops – just like the locals! There was so much to see on the streets and sidewalks of this hectic, noisy city!
War Remnants Museum
When in Ho Chi Minh City we think it’s important to visit to the War Remnants Museum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Remnants_Museum (originally named The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). Be prepared for a one-sided view of the war, known here as “The American War”.
The horrors of the war are shown in displays of weapons and vehicles used, as well as photos – some of them from Life Magazine – and with which you are probably familiar. Many of the photos are graphic and moving, in particular photos of the results from the use of Agent Orange and cluster bombs. Obviously both sides of the conflict were guilty of terrible acts, however, the actions of the Viet Cong are not covered at this Museum.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Taking package tours is not our favorite way to travel, however, it is the best way to get to the Cu Chi Tunnels, some 29 miles (46.2km) from the city. We decided on VietFun Travel for the tour and were at their offices across town bright and early for an 8am departure. After stopping at a couple of hotels to pick up other passengers we threaded our way through heavy traffic to the outskirts of town.
Our guide was very pleasant, quite funny and did a good job explaining the history of the city. The bus was modern and clean and the drive was comfortable. A short black-and-white propaganda video was shown on the way showcasing how the people of the region fought against the aggressors – the Americans.
One look at the parking lot at the Cu Chu Tunnels and we knew the crowds would be huge! Two large groups of students from the International School in Ho Chi Minh City were waiting to get tickets and we soon found tourist groups milling around with tour guides talking to them in different languages in loud voices or on loudspeakers. There was virtually no chance for us to be on our own with our guide.
We saw some of the tunnel openings and learned how the Viet Cong brought air and water into the tunnels and hid the smoke from the kitchens. We also saw samples of the traps the Viet Cong set to catch and kill US and Vietnamese enemy soldiers. The traps had previously been used to catch large animals such as tigers and bears.
The entire scene was far removed from what Priscilla remembered on her visit here several years ago and we learned that this new location was opened in 2000. Unfortunately, it has taken on a Disney type atmosphere with one of the “attractions” allowing visitors to pay extra to shoot AK47 guns.
Those who wish can go into tunnels – which have been enlarged and fortified for tourism – and Bill did this. He had to crawl on his hands and knees and even then his back scraped the roof. Priscilla chose to sit this one out!
We feel it’s important to see the tunnels since they played such an integral role in the war but we were not enthusiastic about our experience.
Our tour, like most others, included a stop at a Lacquer Factory on the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. A guide explained the process which entails working with egg shell and mother of pearl to create intricate, beautiful pieces. At this ‘factory’ the items were being hand made by individuals injured during the war by Agent Orange, cluster bombs and landmines.
The way out, of course, was through the shop where we were followed closely by a very aggressive sales lady who changed from being sweet and polite to hostile when she realized we were not big spenders! Some of the bigger pieces go for thousands of dollars which, of course, “Madam, can be shipped anywhere in the world at very little cost” !
A friendly welcome awaited us when we returned to our comfortable home in the afternoon. Next time we’ll share with you our unexpected life in the alleys of Ho Chi Minh City.
Links to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/7GXrm4ov9wBM1PYA9