And so we embarked on the trip that we have been planning for and laughing off as one of our “dream” projects. It was when we finally had the bookings in place (for the 2nd time. Don’t ask how…) that I started educating myself about the countries we were going to visit! All that I knew about Vietnam was some random reference in Hollywood movies “when I was in ‘Nam”. Beyond that it was just an Asian country located somewhere. I did not know its exact location even when yours truly has visited its neighbor – Cambodia in 2016! I am hopelessly challenged in my geographical know-how.
From my google knowledge, I knew a bit more about Modern Vietnam and what I read convinced me that am visiting a nation of some bad-a$$ people who won the war against the “Imperialist America” with some sheer ingenuity ! So I was prepared to witness some hard-core communist visuals and propaganda. All of that was reinforced the moment we touched down at Ho Chi Minh Airport. We had a pre-approval letter from Vietnam that mentioned that we can collect visa at airport. We reached the visa on arrival counter only to find innumerable people in waiting – few were standing, others seated in a haphazard manner and generally looked ruffled. There was just 1 queue in front of 1 window that seemed to be accommodating all the visitors. There were people who had old passport number mentioned on the visa pre-approval letter who actually told the Vietnamese Officer “How does it matter if I am carrying all passports!” The western sense of entitlement was on abundant display! And so was Vietnam’s corruption J all in all, everything was always sorted amicably. Our documentation was in place so the official grudgingly stamped the visa and shooed us away. Immigration was a breeze after this. But visa stamping took us so long that our baggage was already moved away from the belt.
You can get a taxi and local sim card with unlimited data immediately after collecting baggage and you need to ensure that both are reliable. So make sure your sim card works before you leave the counter. We took “Vinasun” taxi services and had a decent ride to the hotel. We stayed at perfectly located Novotel at Saigon Centre which was equidistant from all the major attractions. The staff was friendly and cooperative. We got one of the upper floor rooms from where we could see the famous Saigon traffic each morning and evening. Since we had limited time in HCMC, we had to do whirlwind sight-seeing to cover everything on our list. The weather was especially moody and it rained heavily in the afternoon on almost all days. We did not have the luxury to skip sight-seeing even if it rained. So we ventured out using Uber and finished our city landmarks in half a day. The Reunification Palace is well maintained and one can visualize the important meetings taking place in the grandeur of these corridors. Though I had read about Vietnam and the war, nothing had prepared me for the horrors I would witness in the War Remnant Museum.The horrors of war are still deeply embedded in that soil and people still suffer from the chemicals used decades ago. The question that kept popping in my head was on what moral ground does the US preach so much to the world?
After our visit to the War Remnant Museum, I was mentally fighting the “Imperialist” USA and it was time for some retribution. So next day we went to Cu Chi Tunnels to see how the underdogs defeated the giant. And to say the least, it’s a captivating piece of human mastermind to have built and used those illusive underground tunnels! I was completely blown away by all the minute and thoughtful details that went into making these supremely efficient three-tiered passageways. Short blog is dedicated to Cu Chi at The Cu Chi Intrigue. After Cu Chi, our guide Mai did a personal favour to us and dropped us off at a famous Pho joint. The description of the same is covered in another blog Vietnam – the land of Pho & Coffee. After a sumptuous lunch of Pho, it was time to catch 40 winks and then head to the sky bar in our own hotel. It had rained again but even then and on the 20th floor, there was no wind to ease the humidity. After a drink and snacks, we headed out to catch night market at Ben Thanh Street Market. It’s a buzzing place with stalls that sell everything under the sun. I am not much of a shopper, so we just strolled around. One thing you cannot miss in Vietnam is the amount of real estate development that’s going on! It looks to be a booming, upcoming market. The street food available was beyond our capability to eat and so we just marveled at the weirdness of it all and ate a burger.
After Saigon, it was Hanoi on our radar where we had 5 days to do some relaxed touring. So we undertook visits to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Old quarter, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, Flag Tower of Hanoi etc which were spread across 2 days. We also did a quick trip to Vietnamese Air Force Museum, where I was a silent and bored bystander. TH as usual found something of great interest in those rusting pieces of vehicles and aircraft. We did one day must-see tour of Halong Bay. It’s a full day tour which involves a painfully slow road journey to and from Halong Bay. But the visit is worth all the efforts once you catch a glimpse of the archipelago. It is a natural wonder and boat ride weaving through the sea dotted by mountains is a mesmerizing experience. We even spotted a few jelly fish scattered close to the ocean surface.
TH and I are highly skilled at making our life hectic, so the 5 day leisurely visit started to look eventful as we planned an impromptu visit to Da Nang and Hoi An. The one day jaunt was planned while we returned from Halong Bay. We were dead tired by the sun and the sea of that day but a quick trip to another ocean front was too tempting to let go. The airfare was pocket friendly so we started for Da Nang early morning. We headed straight for a quaint little village of Hoi An. It is a well preserved ancient town and attracts steady flow of tourists. You can hitch an Uber ride from Da Nang airport to Hoi An city Centre. After being dropped we roamed the town on foot and it’s easy to manage that. The town offers some interesting food options. We had ample time to roam as the central town is really a few square kms in size. Post lunch we headed back to Da Nang which was gearing up for APEC scheduled to take place in Nov 2017. Since we had almost 2 hours before reaching the airport, TH had a superb brain wave – to stop by for drink [or two] at one of the ocean-front resorts. And so we did – at Pullman Da Nang. The staff was utterly and openly suspicious of two Asians who mysteriously stopped by for a pint and then left by paying in cash. We realized the reason later that the hotel was a base for many dignitaries for APEC so its security antennae were on high alert and we made them wary by our guest appearance. The breezy afternoon spent at Da Nang will remain one of the best in my life 🙂
After being totally exhausted from our journey, we returned to our temporary abode and then headed back out to look for dinner. We had a memorable dining experience at a place called Uu Dam, review of which is covered in the blog Vietnam – the land of Pho & coffee. Next day we had to head to Luang Prabhang, Laos 😉
Hanoi has superb Uber service so roaming around the city even late at night is not a problem. The only problem is language barrier. Vietnamese people are very warm and helpful but for language. One can hardly communicate effectively with such poor English. Modern day HCMC and Hanoi resemble any other world metropolis with Starbucks, KFC and likes adorning the corners. But you just have to scratch the surface to see the scars of the past. The war still lingers in the psyche of peopleand even when Vietnam is fast growing, the set-backs of the war and single-party socialist republic framework may pose roadblocks. We did not see abject poverty like we saw in Cambodia. So, the state or the people must be doing something right. For me, a visit to Vietnam was an eye-opener and I salute the spirit with which Vietnamese people have rebuilt their nation.