Category Archives: Vietnam

Paris of Vietnam

28th July 2015

Dalat, the Paris of Vietnam.  At least that’s the way travel books describe Dalat, Vietnam.  I’ve been to Paris, and I think the only similarities are the Eiffel Tower and the rainy weather.   However, the Eiffel Tower in Dalat is a cell phone tower, and in my opinion, that doesn’t qualify a place to be the “Paris” of a country.

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Eiffel Tower in Dalat, a/k/a, a cell phone tower. How romantic.

Fortunately, Dalat is not a super touristy city.  But, at times we found ourselves struggling to find something interesting to occupy our time.  We managed to see a lot of the attractions the first day we were there, including the Dalat Flower Garden, the Hang Nga Crazy House and we even took a treacherous ride on the local cable car to a nearby temple.  Since Dalat is not a top international tourist destination, we definitely got some looks walking around the city.  We were even asked by a group of pre-teen girls to be in a group picture.

The Dalat Flower Garden had a fun, but weird Disney vibe.  We kept seeing characters that resembled Disney characters, like Cinderella’s horse drawn carriage, and broomsticks from Fantasia.  Some of it was cool, but most of it was a little creepy.

The cleaning broomsticks from Fantasia.

The cleaning broomsticks from Fantasia.

I'm a little teapot.

I’m a little teapot.

Is that supposed to be a Mickey Mouse trash can?

Is that supposed to be a Mickey Mouse trash can?

A colt next to one of the Cinderella-esque carriages.

A colt next to one of the Cinderella-esque carriages.

Remember when I said some of the parts of the garden were a little creepy?

Remember when I said some of the parts of the garden were a little creepy?

After touring the creepy flower garden, we decided to take a ride on a cable car to a mountain temple.  When we arrived, we were excited that there wasn’t a line for the gondola.  However, we soon figured out the reason.  It was a super windy day, the cars were swaying back and forth for the entire ride, and we’re the only people willing to risk our lives for a ride on the gondola.  It was pretty scary, but we made it to the other side to see the temple.  We made a wise decision to take a cab back to town, and pass on the return gondola trip.

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Freakin' out man!

Freakin’ out man!

Cable cars swaying with the breeze.

Cable cars swaying with the breeze.

Nervous.

Nervous.

IMG_7108 IMG_7109 IMG_7125 IMG_7134When we left the temple, we had our taxi driver take us to the Hang Nga Crazy House.  The house was designed and built by Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of a former communist leader of Vietnam.  In my opinion, the house puts Antoni Gaudi’s designs to shame.  It was tough to find our way around the house because there were so many different staircases and bridges leading to different places.  I’m pretty sure we toured the whole house, but I can’t be certain.

Greeter at the Crazy House.

Greeter at the Crazy House.

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On our second day in Dalat, we visited the historic train station.  The train station was cut off from the rest of Vietnam by the Viet Cong during the American war, and normal operations never resumed.  However, it does transport passengers from Dalat to the nearby Linh Phuoc Pagoda.  We tried to buy train tickets but they were sold out, so we hired a taxi.  The pagoda is built almost entirely through the use of mosaic patterns, and the detail is spectacular.  There is also a huge bell at the pagoda, where visitors would write on pieces of paper, glue it to the bell and strike it with a wooden beam.  We weren’t really sure what to write, so Robbie just dedicated it to our dog, Lucy.

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The people of Dalat were by far our favorite part of our visit.  Our first night we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner and struck up a conversation with the pianist, Tim.  He is from Australia, but has been living in Vietnam for a while.  A couple of days later, we saw him and his wife at a local coffee shop and ended up spending an hour or two chatting away.  He was very kind and invited us to his bed & breakfast up the road for some coffee.  We gladly accepted the invitation, and spent part of the afternoon soaking up the beautiful views from their hilltop hotel.

Tim playing the piano at the Italian restaurant.

Tim playing the piano at the Italian restaurant.

The view from Tim's hotel.

The view from Tim’s hotel.

Dalat was a great place for Robbie and I to unwind and cool our body temperatures.  We came to Dalat not knowing what we would find, and ended up leaving with new friends and the lesson that you shouldn’t ride cable cars when it’s really windy outside.

— Aubrey

Hoi An

25th July 2015

For me, Hoi An was a highlight of our visit to Vietnam.  A mix of modern Vietnam in a well preserved coastal colonial city.  Our experience started off well, with a visit to Mr. Sons, a roadside food stall with excellent seafood.  Our other dining experiences in Hoi An served up similarly tasty dishes, but none were quite so friendly as our experience with Mr. Son and his wife.  They made us feel welcome in their city as soon as we arrived.

The city is preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site, and the buildings are all strikingly similar to the way they looked hundreds of years ago.  The unique mixture of ancient Chinese and Japanese architecture mixed with colonial charm is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

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The places of interest within the city mostly include ancient houses, immaculate temples, gourmet dining establishments, and an array of high end shops.  Aubrey and I spent an afternoon amazed at the detail of Chinese built temples and community centers.  We were taught by an elder how to ring the gongs and drums, and we even tailed a tour group for a while to get a little additional information on the meaning behind the grand decor.

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One afternoon after fully exerting ourselves exploring the city’s streets and alleys, we stopped into the Reaching Out Teahouse to relax and escape from the rain.  It’s a “quiet” tea house, fully staffed by hearing and speech impaired employees.  We utilized sign language and hand written notes to communicate with our hosts.  It was a truly unique and relaxing experience.  Plus the tea was very tasty.

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IMG_6966 During our visit to the teahouse, we learned that there is an associated shop down the street that sells goods handmade by physically and mentally disabled members of the community.  We had a chance to visit the workshop, meet some of the employees, and purchase high quality fair trade gifts.  Visit Reaching Out Arts and Crafts to learn more.

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— Robbie

Hue, The Imperial City

22nd July 2015

I was corrected about ten times before I figured out it’s pronounced “way” and not “hewy”.  Some of these corrections were made by other patrons of the mini-bus into Hue from Dong Hoi.  Yes, we promised ourselves we would never ride in another mini-bus, but we didn’t have too much of a choice on this one.  If you’re wondering, the experience was mostly similar to other mini-bus encounters, except our mini-bus had a “boss” who would hang out of the vehicle and solicit additional passengers.  I’ll just say the mini-bus was well over capacity, but at least no one was sitting in my lap.

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The highlight of our brief stay in Hue was enjoying authentic Vietnamese food at several great spots, and also visiting the Citadel, Vietnam’s Ancient Imperial City.  The Citadel is a fortified city, surrounded by a moat, and utilized by the Royalty who ruled Central Vietnam, mostly in the 19th century.  The Citadel has been extensively rebuilt and restored in some areas, as it was mostly destroyed during the French and American conflicts.

To me, the most impressive aspects of the Citadel are the immaculate gates.  Countless oversized and impressively decorated gates showcase the statement royalty intended to make to outsiders.  The pictures say it all.

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Stairway to Heaven

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Gates, Gates, and more Gates

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And, Another Gate…

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And, Another Gate

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And, Another Gate…

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And, Another Gate…

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Half of A Gate…

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A person finally using a Gate…

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Ok, last Gate.

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Even though our stay in Hue was brief, it was yet another opportunity to experience the impact of the the French and American wars on the local people and heritage sites.  We’re fortunate that portions of the Citadel have been beautifully restored, and we were able to pay it a visit.

— Robbie

Fun at Phong Nha

18th July 2015

I tried to talk Aubrey into buying a motorcycle in Hanoi and riding it down to Saigon, exploring the country on two wheels.  I was unsuccessful.  However, we utilized about every other mode of transportation on the way to Saigon.  The first was a night train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, in the North-Central region of Vietnam. We ended up sharing a cabin with an older Vietnamese couple who were traveling with their grandkids, that’s another story, but at least no one snored during the night.

The purpose of taking the train to Dong Hoi was to visit the remarkable Phong Nha National Park.  Another UNESCO World Heritage Listed site.  The region contains one of the most intricate cave systems in the world, including the world’s largest cave.

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Our first stop in the National Park was to visit Paradise Cave which was only recently discovered and opened to the public.  Somewhat unprepared, we hiked up about 45 minutes worth of stairs to get to the mouth of the cave, and then descended back into the depths of Paradise Cave.  Although exhausting, it was well worth the effort.  The subterranean beauty can’t be captured through pictures, it’s a must see if you visit Vietnam.

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After reversing course and heading out of the cave and back down the mountain, we set off for Phong Nha cave, a famous cave with a 14 kilometer long underground river.  The Phong Nha cave was also one of Ho Chi Minh’s hideout’s during the American/Vietnam war.  His army used the cave as a bomb shelter and command post for part of his campaign to reunite North and South Vietnam.

IMG_6585 IMG_6575 IMG_6546We cruised into Phong Nha cave in a long boat, making sure that our heads didn’t scrape on the roof of the cave.  Our captain shut off the engine and navigated our boat 1.5 kilometers into the cave and back out.  We saw everything from bats, glow worms, and world famous stalactites.  It was a new experience seeing such an impressive cave from the inside of a boat, and realizing its importance in Vietnam’s history.

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We enjoyed seeing the caves of Phong Nha, but the trip to Dong Hoi wouldn’t have been so pleasant without spending some time with our new friends at the Tree Hugger Cafe.  If you’re ever in Dong Hoi, stop in and have a coffee and a piece of the daily cake, you won’t regret it!

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— Robbie

Not Long in Ha Long

15th July 2015

Our general travel philosophy has been to spend as little as possible and not plan too far ahead.  Sometimes the not planning part can get you in trouble, but sometimes it works out for the best.  I think it worked out for the best when we booked our Ha Long Bay trip last minute.

While in Hanoi, we booked an overnight cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay (basically Ha Long Bay) with the hotel we were staying with.  They booked us on the Dragon Legend II, which they told us was a luxury boat.  Ya, OK.  We’ve had experiences in the past where a hotel will talk up a tour or mode of transportation and it ends up being something other than expected.  But we decided to trust our hotel and just book the cruise…and I’m glad we did.

Our boat, or junk as they call it in Vietnam.

Our boat, or junk as they call it in Vietnam.

As soon as we were picked up from our hotel I knew it was going to be awesome.  We were picked up by a luxury van, which provided bottled water, a TV, and free Wi-Fi on board!  Plus, there were actually fewer people in the van than it could seat (see my post about the “mini-bus” nightmare).  It’s amazing the little things that can completely change your mindset.

The boat is beautiful, and we were spoiled by the attentive staff.  Even though the scenery around us was breathtaking, I found myself wanting to spend more time in my cabin than on the observation deck.

The most comfortable bed we had slept on in months!

The most comfortable bed we had slept on in months!

And the food!  I’m a big foodie, so I really loved trying all of the delicious food on board.  We ate a lot of seafood and also signature Vietnamese dishes.  It was a great introduction to the Vietnamese food since we had arrived just days before.

Clams...usually wouldn't try these but the chef on board was amazing so we felt comfortable trying everything.

Clams…usually wouldn’t try these but the chef on board was amazing so we felt comfortable trying everything.

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Remember earlier when I said that one of our travel philosophies is to spend as little as possible?  Then I can honestly tell you that being on the ship was like heaven to us since we had been staying at not so great accommodations in the past.  It was such a refreshing change, but one we could not afford to sustain.

During the cruise, we kayaked amongst the karsts, hung out on deserted beaches and explored sunlit caves.  We also met some great people that we’re now Facebook friends with (yay)!IMG_6086 IMG_6063 IMG_6248 IMG_6233

We were also able to see some of the people who live in Ha Long Bay.  Most are fishermen and live on floating villages.  They even have pets!  All would greet us with a smile and a wave.

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One of the floating villages.

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Before dinner, we were able to catch the sunset over the karsts.  It was pretty magical to be in a place like that, surrounded by the quiet, especially after being in Hanoi for a couple of days.

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During dinner, the crew came out and sang a couple songs.  One of the crew members was also a flautist and he played a few songs on his flute.  I loved that they were willing to share their culture with us.

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Robbie and I lucked out with this last minute booking.  It was definitely hard to leave the next day.  I think the only thing we regret is that we didn’t book the two night cruise!

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— Aubrey

The Real Hanoi

13th July 2015

The first thing that I noticed about Vietnam was it’s people.  Despite their troubled, and at times horrific history, they are an inspiring people due to their kindness and resilience.  Before we even entered the country we got a taste of their hospitality.  We flew into Hanoi from Laos and our hotel even contacted us to estimate our arrival time and send a car to the airport to pick us up.

Even walking the sidewalks in Hanoi, we were greeted by strangers and locals who were always smiling.  Of course we still had to deal with the annoying characters trying to sell you useless stuff on the street but for the most part, the people were some of the nicest we have come across in SE Asia.IMG_5982 IMG_5975

Hanoi is a beautiful and vibrant city.  Merchants line the streets, selling everything from T-Shirts to silk clothing.  The green grass surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake is spotted with flowers and large trees providing plenty of shade.  Bia (beer) is on the menu at every local watering hole, starting at about $0.25 each.  It was a great place to start our trip in Vietnam.IMG_5913 IMG_5914IMG_5986 IMG_6000

Some of the sights we saw included the Hoa Lo Prison, a/k/a, the Hanoi Hilton and the Ho Chi Minh Complex.  Another interesting thing we noticed in Vietnam is a general lack of consistency regarding Vietnam’s history.  To us, we felt that we were never getting the real story.IMG_5967

Welcome...to prison.

Welcome…to prison.

An example of this is when Robbie and I visited Hoa Lo Prison.  Hoa Lo was originally built by the French in the late 19th century for detaining political prisoners of Vietnam.  Touring through the prison, exhibits tell the story of how the Vietnamese political prisoners lived, and it wasn’t pretty.  They were chained together all day long, given little food and water, and were often tortured.  It was a grim reality that these men and women lived while trying to gain their independence from France.IMG_5936

This is where the female political prisoners were kept.

This is where the female political prisoners were kept.

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Then we passed into the section of the museum describing the living conditions of the American POWs  during the American/Vietnam War.  This area of the museum told a completely different story.  There were pictures of American prisoners smiling, playing cards, willingly cleaning the grounds of the prison, etc.  The placards that we read described a comfortable life for the American POWs during the war.  It was described not as a prison, but as an outlet for the American POWs to learn more about the Vietnamese culture.  Ya, OK, I totally believe that.IMG_5958

Christmas train painted by the inmates at Hoa Lo Prison...so cheery!

Christmas train painted by the inmates at Hoa Lo Prison…so cheery!

Another thing Robbie and I didn’t quite understand about the Vietnamese people was their love and unwavering devotion to Ho Chi Minh.  He was the leader of Vietnam during the war with the U.S. and although he was one of the biggest proponents for Vietnam’s independence from France, he also murdered millions of his countrymen.  I think almost every city we visited in Vietnam had a museum dedicated to him.  The one in Hanoi actually houses his embalmed body, which we didn’t get to see (aw shucks).  It is heavily guarded 24 hours a day.   Talk about VIP treatment, even though he’s been gone for over 40 years.

The mausoleum that houses Ho Chi Minh's body.

The mausoleum that houses Ho Chi Minh’s body.

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As I said before, I’m glad we started our Vietnam trip in Hanoi.  Even though it is a big city, Hanoi really gave us a sense of the Vietnamese culture and people.  It also set some high expectations for the rest of the country!IMG_5993

— Aubrey

Getting into Vietnam

11th July 2015

If you’re planning on visiting The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and you’re required to obtain a visa, a few pieces of information will help ensure you arrive in Vietnam with the least amount of hassle.  From experience, Vietnam requires visitors to jump through more hoops than any other country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam requires visitors to either obtain a visa prior to arriving, or acquire a “letter of approval” for the visitor to apply for a visa upon arrival.  There are three options that will get you one or the other:

The first option requires mailing your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in your country well ahead of your visit. The second option is to visit a Vietnamese Embassy and apply for the visa in person.  The third option involves hiring a Vietnamese travel agency as a middleman to submit the relevant paperwork and forward the government’s letter of approval back to you.

I prefer to keep my passport in my possession leading up to travel, so I excluded option one.  One downside to traveling without an itinerary, and a relative lack of wifi, is realizing you’ve waited too long before applying for the letter of approval, which takes at least three business days to process.  Aubrey and I were slowly moving through Laos when we decided we wanted to travel to Vietnam, but we didn’t feel that we had enough time to seek option three, the letter of approval.  So, we went for option two and planned on visiting the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa in person.  Unfortunately, my mistake was believing the consulate could rush the process and issue a visa application in one day.

Upon arriving at the consulate, I was told it would take at least two business days, most likely three days.  That didn’t work, since we had a flight later that day… whoopsie.  The advice of the consulate was, believe it or not, contact a travel agent, there’s nothing the consulate could do within one business day.

Determined to get to Vietnam despite our drastic procrastination, we retreated to a coffee shop, soaked up some caffeine and wifi, and started contacting travel agents requesting a letter of approval in order to enter the country.  Luckily, we were able to find an agency online that would be able to process our information and provide us with a letter of approval within hours.  Time is money, but we didn’t want to delay our plans or our flights, so we paid an exorbitant rush fee.  My advice would be to skip options one and two and just go for the letter of approval, but well in advance.

The remaining requirements for the visa upon arrival are $45 USD (in addition to the fee for the letter of approval) and one passport size photo.  As for the $45 “stamping fee,” Hanoi’s airport does not have an ATM or currency exchange, so bring dollars, Vietnamese currency is not accepted. I know, convenient right?

As for the photo, Vietnamese customs will take your picture for a fee at the Hanoi airport, but we had already packed a few extras for this situation.  Earlier in the day, after finally getting our letter of approval, we walked around Vientiane looking for a place to procure passport photos.  After searching in the 108 degree heat for way too long, (where’s a photo booth when you need one) we essentially gave up and decided to see some sights in Vientiane.  We stumbled upon the Patuxai gate, which is ironically Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, erected to celebrate its independence from France.  I noticed several local photographers lounging around Patuxai offering to take pictures of tourists in front of the monument, and sell printed copies out of the back of a van.  Almost like at a theme park, but way creepier since the back of a van is involved.IMG_5885 IMG_5884

I saw this as an opportunity.  With some pantomiming skills, I was able to convince one of the photographers to take our pictures and cut them to size for use as passport photos.  Before we knew it, we were posing in the back of a guy’s van, with a blue sarong as a backdrop.  He printed and chopped the photos in a matter of minutes.  I think I might have given him a new business idea.

Although it was an experience to remember, if you’re heading to Vietnam, avoid the consulate and the back of some guy’s van.  Get the letter of approval in advance, and bring US dollars and a few extra passport photos.

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— Robbie