A Travellerspoint blog

Ho Chi Minh City


Well, we’ve made it to our final stop in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City. This city, which used to be named Saigon, was the capital of Vietnam from 1949-1975. However, once the Vietnam War ended, Hanoi was given the title and became the capital of a reunified Vietnam. We didn’t spend a ton of time in the city itself, but from the time spent walking the streets, we quickly realized that this city has a great energy about it. It reminded us strongly of Bangkok - and as many of you know, we LOVE Bangkok, so we knew we were in for a treat.

Trying to find our way around the city streets brought us back to our “pre-beach town” days spent in Hanoi; the motorbikes were back (8 million to be exact) along with the constant honking and people-packed walkways. We did however notice that there was much more structure here; less motorbikes driving on the sidewalks (they often had dedicated lanes), streets with real lines, large boulevards and even a traffic light or two dotted throughout the city where the drivers actually paid attention! Aaahhhhh ;) Even though the sidewalks have bikes and food stalls all along them, there is still room to walk which was nice. The city is still crazy, busy and loud BUT, there just seemed to be a bit more order and respect for pedestrians here. We were staying in “District 1” though, and didn’t venture too far from there, so who knows, maybe the rest of the city was like the Hunger Games everywhere else!

Our first stop in Saigon brought us along the Mekong River for some sunset pictures. Unfortunately, it was pretty underwhelming. Dirty and brown, with garbage and weeds floating in the current and a pretty lackluster river front. Well, at least we saw it. Our walk home was much more interesting, with traditional dancers performing in the middle of a square and seeing all the neon signs and bars light up for the long night ahead. Finally, some night life!


We ended up heading to Bui Vien Street where we initially sat down for "just 1 beer" - famous last words. We found this small roadside stall that had multiple plastic tables and chairs packed in the stall itself and also flowing onto the sidewalk. As the sun started to set the street got busier and busier and busier. By 10pm the street was so packed you could barely drive down it anymore and all of the roadside stalls and pubs were exploding with people. We ended up sitting with a couple of guys who have been living in Vietnam for some time, one a teacher and one works oil and gas. Both men have extraordinary stories to tell from their work and their life experiences living in HCMC. The hours went by (as did the beers), and before the end of the night we were eating quail eggs dipped in salt and pepper - actually quite delicious.


The next day we spent sobering up wandering the streets in the heat, trying to find as much shade and air-con breaks (air conditioning) as we could. The day started with us finding the Notre Dame Cathedral and the famous Saigon Central Post Office right beside it. Though the French influence was extremely noticeable in HCMC, the post office had its own Vietnamese feel - even though it was also designed by a French architect. The rumor is that Gustav Eiffel (yes, THAT Eiffel) was the famous architect behind this beautiful design, however, fact states that Villedieu was the true vision behind this building. Unfortunately for him, everyone still believes it’s Eiffel.


From there, we walked, and walked, and walked to our next destination – the Independence Palace or the “Reunification Palace” as it is now known. This place was like a blast from the past; imagine Austin Powers in the 1970’s and you’ve got it. The architecture was clearly from the 70’s era and as we explored the inside, we experienced first-hand what that time must have been like. Big, round faux leather chairs sitting on lime green or rusty orange carpets, massive oval wooden tables with pastel coloured dial up telephones sitting on top, red velvet staircases and thick yellow curtains from floor to ceiling... we could keep going! It was an experience for sure.






On a serious note though, this was the place the President lived and worked before and during the Vietnam War as well as where the war ended in 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the front gates. It has also seen its fair share of suffrage as it was bombed in 1962 by rebel pilots who were supposed to fly north to bomb the Viet Cong. It was rebuilt by 1966 and continued to be a functional facility, however today it is basically a museum filled with tourists, vying for a chance to see the 2 red markers on the roof where the bombs were dropped. Definitely a site to see in HCMC.


Our last stop on this sweaty day was the War Remnants Museum. This is the first place Sean and I truly felt the propaganda in this country. This is a museum that has kept artifacts and pictures from mainly the Vietnamese War - or for the Vietnamese, the “American War”. Floors upon floors are showered with photographs throughout the war, old bombshells and guns, and stories from local people. The challenging part for us was, that everything seemed to explain how horrible the American’s were and how the country was settled and peaceful before they arrived and just started “bombing for no reason”. There was never any mention of the communist dictator and murderer Ho Chi Minh, other than to say he was an amazing leader trying to liberate the south from the American’s. Now, we’re not trying to say that the American’s were in the right and should have done what they did, but it was difficult to know that only one side of the Vietnam War story was being told.




We had heard from a few people that HCMC was a city that could be missed and was a bit "scammy", as in tourists are constantly being scammed or ending up in bad positions, however our experience here was the complete opposite. Please keep in mind that we both love the hustle and bustle of big cities with great nightlife scenes, but we thought HCMC had a great feel to it, with lots of energy, great people, great sights and air that isn't completely riddled with exhaust. Even if you only have a day or two, give HCMC a chance, because we think you'll love it.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 14:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels palace museum saigon war mekong cu chi ho minh hcmc delta remnants reunification Comments (0)

Nha Trang

We have a friend from home, Justin, who decided to leave Calgary last year and move to Vietnam. As beautiful of a city as Calgary is, the white sandy beaches, turquoise blue ocean and hot, sunny days of Nha Trang just seemed to be calling his name. He made a quick trip back to Calgary a few months ago and we mentioned to him that we were planning a trip to Vietnam. Immediately he reminded us of his new found home and from then on, we were destined for a visit. As we had been told by a few people that we didn’t need to go to Nha Trang because it was “just another beach town”, we were pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. It also may have helped that we had local tour guides to show us around and take us to places that most tourists don’t even know exist.
Our first few days in Nha Trang were pretty relaxing - listening to the massive waves crashing along the beach (seriously, they were HUGE!) while we enjoyed the sun shining on and burning our skin, drinking coconut water right from the coconuts and enjoying the dense, green mountains jutting out of the ocean all around us. Not too shabby, to say the least!


On our second night, we met up with Justin and his girlfriend, Hue. Hue is amazing! She is from a town called Ha Tinh in northern Vietnam but moved to Nha Trang a few years ago. Justin met her at the dive shop they both worked at and they have been inseparable ever since. She made sure that we had the true Vietnamese food experience while we were there. We even joked that a few of the restaurants she took us to, Justin had never even known existed - we were the “special guests” ;). Whether it was the restaurant on the corner where we made our own spring rolls while sitting on plastic chairs and drinking beer on ice, or the restaurant beside an old rice field turned lake where we ate the most amazing fish and deep fried pancakes - we were always full and never left without a smile on our faces.


On our last day in Nha Trang, Hue said she had a very “special” place for us to visit. Excited and eager to explore, we rented our motorbike and met up with them at their apartment. Helmets on for safety, (and a new triangle hat in tow! Thanks Hue ;) ) we twisted and turned our way out of the city and along the coastal highway. We drove through so many cute little fishing villages with their blue boats swaying in the waves, little kids running on and off the sidewalks playing tag and so many dogs just trying to find some extra scraps of food. Even on the hectic Vietnam roads, we felt peaceful and relaxed.


After a 30 minute drive, (which supposedly is an eternity for Vietnamese drivers), we finally made it to our destination – The Ba Ho Waterfalls. There was a “path” leading to the river and eventually the waterfalls, but it was barely that. There were rocks and tree roots jutting out of the ground with the occasional water pipe acting as the path for a short time, which ultimately gave our $7 sandals from Thailand a run for their money!




We continued our hiking adventure when all of a sudden, the trail opened up to gigantic boulders towering in to the sky, a flowing river meandering through the middle and an enormous lush, green jungle bordering it all. As the sun shined down on us, we looked up to the left and saw the first of three (yes three!) beautiful waterfalls. It was easy to just stand there in awe, listening to the thundering water carve its way through the rocks and watching the sun glisten off the mist…but we had to forge on as there were two more to see! We finally made it to the top after choosing the most difficult trail to hike which included scaling boulders, holding on to whatever tree roots we could grasp and jumping huge crevices. Once we arrived at the top we realized that the arduous journey was ultimately worth it. The views were absolutely stunning and we savoured each minute we could while looking over the river below. 





Our time in Nha Trang was amazing. It was so great to meet up with old friends and make new ones at the same time. Our adventures in food and travel were second to none and this city will always hold a place on our hearts. Thank you so much Justin and Hue, for showing us the time of our lives!


Posted by BlondeandCurly 10:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged waterfalls food fishing hiking village spring roll motorbike nha trang Comments (0)

Hoi An - The Town of Lanterns


Well, well, well, we have finally made it to the town that everyone has raved about our entire trip! Each traveller we ran into always asked us the same question, “Have you been”, or, “Are you going to Hoi An”? The moment we arrived, we realized why everyone was making such a fuss - there is something special about this gem of a town and it’s hard to explain without witnessing it in person. Hoi An has been inhabited for over 2200 years and has not evolved easily with the changing times. It was almost destroyed in the Tay Son rebellion and as the Thu Bon River silted up within the last century, the town was no longer able to support large vessels and lost its major port status to Danang. This was a blessing in disguise for the town though, as the town has retained its’ small town feel and charm. The Ancient Town, which is where most everyone spends their time, is now filled with buildings of many cultural influences. From the Japanese merchant houses, to the Chinese temples; French colonial buildings to Buddhist Pagoda’s, this town feels magical and accepting to whomever enters.







In order to visit the preserved Ancient buildings in the old town, we had to purchase an entrance ticket that allows access to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ticket however, only allows you to enter 5 out of hundreds of buildings, so we had to choose wisely. One of the sites we decided to see was an old Apothecary, filled with bottles, jars and vases – some of which held the original “medicines” used by the people of the town hundreds of years ago. Next we visited the Tan Ky House – a house built over 200 years ago and is still lived in by the same family. It was originally built by a Vietnamese family, however throughout the house there remains Chinese (poems and characters written on beams) and Japanese (ceilings carved with sabres) architectural influences. One beam in particular resides in the back of the house which is marked like a growth chart. However, instead of measuring the heights of children, the lines instead represent how high the water has been during many of Hoi An’s floods. In 1964, the largest flood of the century, the water almost reached the ceiling of the 1st floor – 9 or 10ft high.


The one day we did not explore the old town, we took a tour to My Son, which is an area 37km away from Hoi An, covered in religious Hindu temples built over 1000 years ago. Settled underneath the Sandstone Mountains, in a lush green jungle with trickling streams meandering throughout, this site was an extremely important area to the Champa Kingdom. It was used for prayer mostly, but was assumed to be a burial site for monarchs as well. The temples look similar in colour and shape to the temples of Angor Wat; however they are much smaller and are in poor condition. Because most of the temples were destroyed in the Vietnam War (the Northern Vietnamese fighters were hiding in the temples, so the American’s bombed the entire area destroying all but 20 structures) archaeologists and local agencies have been trying to rebuild them as naturally as possible. This is noticeable in the temples as the newest areas have bright orange stones and the original areas are a darker black color. The archaeologists are still uncertain of exactly how these structures were constructed and are amazed that the older bricks are continuing to outlast the new ones.







As we neared the end of our time in Hoi An, we realized that one of our favourite things about this town was exploring at night. There were lights shining up and down the streets with neon signs flashing outside stores and restaurants. People were wandering around with their eyes peering into every shop trying to figure out how much to bargain for. And then, there were the lanterns. Oh, the lanterns! There were so many of them everywhere and they were absolutely beautiful, as if they were floating above us in the night sky, adding to the magical spell this town has already cast upon us. Each lantern had its’ own shape and colour and they were strung up for what seemed like miles, from shop to shop, building to building. No matter what was happening around the town, they seemed to steal the show as every tourist was snapping pictures, taking videos or buying these whimsical ornaments.




On a lesser note we were lucky enough to have eaten at one of the restaurants featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain - Banh Mi Vietnam video link. They are world renowned for their Banh Mi and they did not disappoint. Even with all of the fame that the show provided to this small sandwich shop, the prices remain low and the quality is excellent. We highly recommend this place when in Hoi An.


Anyone who is planning on heading to the beach while in Hoi An should know that due to a violent storm, Cua Dai beach has eroded significantly and continues to erode at an alarming rate. Large parts of the beach are now sandbagged and the water is very dangerous to swim in. Nice beach does remain in certain parts around Hoi An, but please ask around and make sure that you find the right spot before heading out.


And just for fun


Posted by BlondeandCurly 07:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples lanterns my son town bridge vietnam old ancient hoi an Comments (3)

Danang & the Hai Van Pass

The Hai Van Pass & Marble Mountain

There are a few different options when deciding how to travel from Hue to Danang: plane, train, bus, or motorcycle. The most stunning though, is driving the Hai Van Pass. This pass is quite famous and we were told specifically by some friends that we could not miss these views. We contemplated whether or not we should rent our own motorcycle and drive ourselves so we could get an incredible 360 degree view. However, if you’ve read any of our last blog entries you’ll understand how much we “LOVE” the traffic in Vietnam and how safe we feel on the roads ;), so we decided to hire our own driver and a car to summit the pass. We felt extremely happy with our decision when we started the incline on one of the most twisty, turny roads we have been on – on one side of the car was a cliff straight up the mountain and the other side, a cliff straight down to the ocean. With cars, motorcycles, trucks, cows, dogs, you name it, coming straight at you or darting out onto the already small 2-laned highway; we would have completely missed the views and scenery trying to dodge it all. So, while our driver had to worry about the oncoming traffic, we could sit back and relax (kind of) and enjoy the absolutely stunning views around us.




Once we summited the pass, we were surprised by what lay on top. Our driver informed us that this was an old military outpost. During the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the pass was an important military site which served as a protection for the Hue Royal Citadel. It also separates the north and south of Vietnam, and allows whoever controls it a very large field of view, which is why it also became a very strategic point for the US Military during the Vietnam War



Once we conquered the pass, we descended into the city of Danang. Danang surprised us greatly and though some people told us it was just a beach town that could be skipped over, we actually found some really cute treasures and some pretty neat attractions in and around the city. Our first stop was the Marble Mountains. It’s a group of 5 marble mountains named for the natural element it’s said to represent; Thuy Son (Water), Moc Son (Wood), Hoa Son (Fire), Kim Son (Metal or Gold) and Tho Son (Earth). Thuy Son is the only mountain open to the public which unfortunately made it very busy with tourists, but we were able to walk around freely and took in what we could.







Danang & Lady Buddha

After almost 2 weeks of straight sight-seeing adventures, we welcomed the beach with open arms. The first day, we literally did not leave the beach, which was a big feat for Sean! I’m usually the beach bum :) We had a few days of relaxation, listening to the waves crashing on the shore and soaking up the sun. To our surprise, the beach was fairly empty and we soon found out that it’s low season in Danang, which made our beach time that much better. On the morning of one of our beach days, we finally took the plunge and rented our own motorbike to head up one of the nearby mountains to see the Lady Buddha. Situated on a small hill on the mountain, the Lady Buddha is pure white and the tallest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam at about 220ft tall, overlooking Danang. It is so massive that you really just need to sit there for a few minutes to really take it all in.




At night, we explored the city a little more and found that it is super busy, filled with people and lights. The streets we walked on during the day suddenly filled with couples and families out for dinner or shopping, small circus areas that were creepily deserted in the day were now packed with kids playing and laughing. Even the bridges were covered with people taking pictures of the city and the famous fire breathing dragon bridge. The dragon bridge was our favourite, and a must see when in Danang.


As a suggestion from a friend, we sought out a little restaurant called Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop – the owner is this little Vietnamese lady, Tam, who was one of the translators for the American troops during the Vietnam War. She became friends with many of the soldiers, which in turn has allowed her to have an incredible amount of stories to tell with each wall in the restaurant telling some of those stories through pictures. As she learned to cook american food to help support the soldiers, She mastered the art of making her world famous bacon cheeseburgers, which are the BEST burgers we have ever had - EVER!!! So if you are ever in Danang please look her up and enjoy the stories. We are off to Hoi An now and the land of the eternal lanterns.


Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains beach lights bridge vietnam buddha dragon lady pass van neon marble danang hai Comments (3)

Up, Up and Hue!

Arriving in Hue (spoken like HWAY) from Hanoi was a wonderful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. There are still crazy drivers and honking motor bikes everywhere, but it is definitely more tranquil in comparison to Hanoi. Now that we have mastered our role as pedestrians in this motorized world and feel more comfortable wandering the streets, we decided to start exploring the city.

The main attraction in Hue is the Imperial Enclosure, which held the royal families from the Dynasty's that ruled for hundreds of years. Just like Ho Chi Minh's grounds in Hanoi, this citadel complex was massive. We're still astounded at how large these places are and after 5 hours of walking around, we only saw a fraction of what was offered! The outside of the citadel is surrounded by a large moat and a brick/cement wall that is 2m thick, 6m tall and 10km's long. The Flag Tower juts up from the centre of the wall, looming over the grounds with one of the largest Vietnamese flags we've seen. Once we crossed the moat, entered the citadel and passed through the walls, we found the Imperial Enclosure. More protective cement walls were now surrounding us, protecting all things important for the Dynasty's that once ruled.


We then passed through the Ngo Mon Gate, (which faces the Flag Tower) where each royal visitor would pass through to see the King. Once through the gate, you walk right into the Thai Hoa Palace, where the King would sit in his gold plated, elevated throne, waiting for those who entered. No photography was allowed inside, but it was truly ornate. When we finally made it through the Palace, we were greeted with the Enclosure grounds. Everything from temples, palaces and pagoda's, to beautiful and colourful gardens with golden dragon statues, shrines and urns of the deceased Dynasty rulers and the houses where they would reside. It was pretty awe inspiring to see the colours and intricate architecture that unfolded before us. Definitely worth the 5 hour wander!






The day after exploring the Imperial Enclosure, we headed to the DMZ (demilitarized zone). Both of us enjoy learning about war history and unfortunately the Vietnam war was a war that we really were in the dark about. Not knowing a lot about it, we thought this would be a great way to learn about it in an unbiased way. The DMZ was an area on either side of the Ben Hai River that was considered a "no man's land" during the war. From 1954-1975 it was supposed to act as a border between the North and South, however we found out that it eventually would have some of the worst bloodshed in the entire war - Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vay, etc. and ended up being one of the most militarized zones on the planet. The tour took us to the 17th parallel, the Rock Pile, a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the American base of Khe Sanh and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Although there was a lot of driving involved, this tour has been one of our favourites. We have also included some pictures from the war to give everyone an idea of what it looked like before.


I am not going to lie, if we were not on a tour, we would have driven right by this mountain on our way to the American base. However, its history is quite significant for the Americans. The mountain is 230m tall and was once a US Marine Corps lookout point as well as a base for long range artillery. The top of the mountain was most accessible by helicopter.


Dakrong Bridge

The current design of the Dakrong Bridge was built in 1975. Because this river crossing was a major artery for the north Vietnamese, and was considered the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Note: the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a concept, not a road. The trail was a vast network, spread across hundreds of miles of terrain extending far into the interior of Laos. According to our guide this network was a network of hundreds of kilometers of trails that brought supplies to the North Vietnamese troops, usually on the backs of porters or for the larger loads, strapped to the back of bicycles.


Khe Sanh American Combat Base

This was the site of the most famous seige of the American War where the north Vietnamese attacked the base from the peripheral mountains. The base was never overrun, but it ended up being one of the bloodiest battles entire War. The 75 day seige started on January 21, 1968 and according to our book, 500 American, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and large numbers of civilians died in and around this base. Our guide told us that it is now well documented that this battle was only a diversion to draw US attention away from major southern Vietnamese cities in preparation for the Tet Offensive (one of the largest military campaigns of the entire war) which began 1 week after this battle began.


The base prior to the attacks


The base after the attacks


Truong Son National Cemetary

Here lies the bodies of 10,000 North Vietnamese Soldiers who died during the War. Each tombstone has the inscription "Martyr".


If you made it this far, thanks for reading. We are on our way over the Hai Van Pass to Danang for some much needed beach time. Till next time.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military vietnam pagoda war hue imperial dynasty citadel dmz vietcong Comments (2)

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