Tag Archive: Vietnam

Mekong Delta is Yourkong Delta

I’m now writing this from my temporary apartment in Bangkok, where I’ve been making great progress on my new site – Price of Travel – and that made it hard to motivate myself to keep up on my travel tales. Nevertheless, I do want to at least write some thoughts and share some photos of each stop, so here we go.

After Saigon I was on my way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the popular thing to do in between is visit the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. For some reason this never brought up wonderful images in my mind so I was always kind of on the fence over even checking it out. But I did leave myself time for six days before my visa extension expired, so I could either stay in Saigon or head straight to Cambodia if I wanted. Saigon was relatively expensive and very crowded, and I did want to see what the Mekong Delta was all about, so on I went.

There are actually around 8 or 10 towns in the Mekong Delta that have some kind of tourist infrastructure, and in the end I chose two of them to spend 3 days each in. First I would go to Can Tho, which is the largest city in the region, and then I would go to Chau Doc, which is near the Cambodian border and hosts various boat trips directly to Phnom Penh.

Saigon – But not forgotten

I had mixed feelings about finally arriving in Ho Chi Minh City after three months in Vietnam already. It’s even larger than Hanoi, and I’d consistently heard from people who’d spent time in both of them that they prefer Hanoi over Saigon. I found Hanoi to be fascinating, but also overwhelming, so I had a feeling that this might be a bigger and more crowded version of Hanoi.

After a seemingly interminable bus ride from Dalat (it took 8 hours and the first 4 of those were actually fantastic), we arrived on the outskirts of Saigon. It wasn’t until about an hour later that we made it to the city center, and this is one of many things that would remind me of Los Angeles.

Dalat – To live up to

From Nha Trang, travelers who started in Hanoi and are going west have three main choices. You can continue on the train directly into Saigon, or take a bus to a smaller beach town call Mui Ne, or take a bus up into the Central Highlands to the town of Dalat, which is what I did. The bus ride took about 4.5 hours, including two long and mostly pointless rest stops. In a country like this I expected bus drivers to behave like amphetamine-crazed long-haul truckers, but it seems that they all stop for a long break about every 90 minutes.

Nha Trang – To get that feeling again

Sorry for the delay in posting this, it’s long overdue. By the time I reached the beach resort city in the south called Nha Trang, my trip had changed quite a bit. I’d seen much of the country already and I suddenly had a big non-travel writing project to work on that would pay quite a bit more than my daily expenses, so I decided to hunker down in Nha Trang to do it in a comfortable place.

I ended up spending exactly six weeks in Nha Trang, nearly completing the project, and otherwise living almost like a local. I had the nicest room in a small hotel about half a mile from the main tourist district, and it cost a whopping $9 per night.

Hoi An is fabulous

I spent 17 wonderful days in Hoi An and it was easily my favorite city in Vietnam so far. One strange thing I discovered was that people tend to either love or hate Hoi An, without much in the middle. I have some guesses as to why some of these morons seem to dislike the place, and they are mostly centered around where you stay in the city.

Normally I will pay a premium to stay in a central location. I’ll be happier with a 1-star hotel in the city center instead of a 3-star hotel a ways out of town, even if they are the same price. I normally just don’t like staying in far-flung suburbs and feeling like it’s a major trek to reach the area that I’ve come to see in the first place, but in Vietnam, at least for me, I’m changing my mind on that.

Hue down along the Central Vietnam coast

Huế, in case you aren’t too familiar with it, is pronounced ‘hWAY’ and that helps the title of this article make a bit more sense. I spent 8 days there after I left Hanoi, and I found a lot to like about the place, but in a manner I didn’t really expect.

Let me begin by mentioning that I arrived on one of the night trains from Hanoi, and even though my night train experience going to and from Sapa was pretty good, this one was fairly miserable so I am going to take as few of them as possible in the future.

After Tet in Hanoi I had the choice of a bottom bunk in a 6-bed sleeper cabin one week after, or I could wait an entire week more to get the bottom bunk in a 4-bed cabin. I had been in Hanoi for quite a while already so I chose the earlier train and figured I’d be asleep for most of the journey anyway.

Halong Bay dazzles just as expected

Unless there is something amazing out there that I have yet to hear about, Southeast Asia has exactly two attractions that should be considered for all of those Seven Wonders Of lists. The manmade one is the temples of Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap in Cambodia, which I’ve yet to visit as of this writing, and the natural one is Ha Long Bay (local spelling, sort of) near Hanoi in Vietnam. I’ve now been to Halong Bay and I’m pleased to report that it lives up to they hype.

In case you haven’t even heard of Halong Bay, it’s a bay that’s about 100km from Hanoi that is filled with almost 2,000 small islands, most of which are limestone. As you can see in the photos on this page, they are mostly tall and sticking out of the water in a pattern not seen many other places on earth. Also, the weather in the area seems to make the bay either misty or foggy nearly every day of the year, so most photos you’ll see have a slightly magical feeling, similar to the way that most photos of Machu Picchu in Peru show clouds below the city on the mountain’s peak.

Things I saw and did in Hanoi

I’m now writing this from the Vietnamese city of Hue, along the central coast, but I did want to cover more about Hanoi since I spent over two weeks there.

I’d read that there really aren’t any must-see attractions in Vietnam’s capital, at least in the sense that the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Christ the Redeemer statue are must-see attractions in Paris, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. As far as I could see, that turned out to be true, but of course in a city of 6 million people that has been the area’s capital under many different rulers, and that was also celebrating its 1,000-year anniversary, there are at least a few worthwhile things to see in Hanoi.

Sapa Vietnam is a mixed bag

To be perfectly honest, I’d only vaguely ever heard of Sapa before I arrived in Vietnam, and I had no plans of visiting the mountain resort. It turns out I’m closely following the “tourist trail” since most people fly into Hanoi and then take side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay before heading south, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

When I first arrived in Hanoi it was hot (in the high 80s) and really humid, so the weather combined with the general insanity of the place made this “colonial French mountain station” called Sapa sound extra nice. My arrival in Hanoi was a little over a week before Tet (lunar new year) begins, and the pace of the place is a bit hard to take, especially right off the plane from Portland.

Hanoi is chaotic, fun

My first stop on this early 2010 trip is Hanoi, Vietnam, and after spending 4 full days there I still am not sure what to make of the place. The wildcard is the upcoming Tet holiday – the lunar new year – which I’ve been told is like our New Year, Thanksgiving, and 4th of July all rolled into one. Evidently it’s a huge family holiday, but with plenty of superstitions and rituals mixed in, so in the days and weeks before the big day (which falls on February 14 this year) everyone is scrambling around at a fever pitch.

I hear they have to buy certain things, like new shoes for good luck in the new year, as well as various decorations and food items to prepare for the big holiday. And raising prices to try to accumulate more money for Tet is accepted and normal.

So I got to Hanoi about 10 days before Tet, and the city feels like a complete mad house to me, with people racing around in every direction at all hours of the day. The problem for me is that I don’t know if that’s close to normal or quite unusual. As I write this I’m in the mountain resort town of Sapa and it’s quite mellow here. When I get back to Hanoi on Friday morning it’ll be 2 days before Tet begins, and I’m told that by Saturday most everything closes down and the city becomes a ghost town for at least 3 or 4 days. I purposely timed it to leave this week and then see the place again during this “ghost town” phase, but once again I’ll have no idea what normal days are like.

After all the craziness I’ve seen, I feel like I owe it to myself to see the nearly empty version of it, even though I’ve been told it might be a minor struggle to find places to buy food and drinks, at least at normal prices.