Tuesday, January 5, 2016

South Vietnam

The area that was once South Vietnam was definitely a lot more interesting and more comfortable than the area that was once North Vietnam, by pretty much every metric.

A few highlights of my time in South Vietnam:

Random travel buddies:
While my travel experience in North Vietnam was pretty easy and lacking any major mishaps, my travel experience in South Vietnam was better and a big part of that was because of my travel companions.  I somehow managed to pick up an American guy and a German couple in Phong Nha and the four of us travelled together for the rest of my time in Vietnam.  I dubbed us the “Super Amazing Travel Squadron” because… well, because I wanted to.  We were super, we were amazing, we were travelling, and we were just a few cool pairs of flight goggles short of being a squadron.  I had heard from other friends that it was quite easy to meet other random travellers in Southeast Asia and stick with them for a few days, sharing accommodation and cutting costs (or spending more but getting a nicer experience), but I wasn’t sure I would meet people that I wanted to spend that much time with (because I’m a picky bitch).  John, Nicolas, and Jasmin proved to be suitable travel buddies and it was great to have company and people to share the new experiences with.

I also met up quite a few times with various travellers from my Halong Bay cruise.  We all seemed to be on similar itineraries so we coordinated a big group reunion dinner while in Hoi An.  It was also great just randomly bumping into them in restaurants, museums, and temples in different parts of South Vietnam.  It made me feel popular.

Hue (pronounced like “Hway”) is an ancient capital of Vietnam and its main attraction is a large citadel which houses a palace, temples, library, theatre, garden, and more.  We explored the citadel and its attached museum on our first day in Hue.  On day two, we rented motorbikes (yikes!) and thrust ourselves into Hue traffic.  The start was rocky, but I quickly got the hang of it.  My travel companions and I rode around to three different tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty as well as a big pagoda and the beach.  In all, we rode roughly 75 kilometres!

Our day riding motorbikes around Hue was just a practice round for a much longer trip.  The next day, we headed out on motorbikes for the journey south from Hue to Hoi An.  With stops, the journey ended up taking the full day – we arrived after sunset.   We hired a guide to lead us down the coast and we stopped along the way at a fishing village, the Elephant Spring (where we went for a swim), and various viewpoints around lagoons, mountain passes, and beaches.  We did have some problems… or, actually, just one major problem:  one of the motorbikes died en route.  Luckily we had the guide to assist.  We ditched the bike and piggy-backed for the rest of the drive.  One of the bikes also ran out of gas/petrol toward the end.  Ooops!  Despite the mishaps, the drive down was awesome.  I had never ridden a motorbike before, but I did really well and it was a lot of fun just having the breeze in my face (except for all the pollution…)

Hoi An:
Hoi An is one of the must-do places in Vietnam and is on the itinerary for nearly every tourist.  The town is famous for its suit-making tailors and caters well for tourists with lots of shops and restaurants.  A tourist ticket provides access to five out of twenty-something sights in the town.  The sights consisted of the town’s icon – a Japanese covered bridge – along with temples, various Chinese congregation halls, a museum, a cultural show, and some historic houses.  Nothing really stood out as a must-see sight, but it was interesting nonetheless. 

More exciting than the temples (I’ve seen soooo many temples at this point) was a day spent at the beach.  Our Airbnb was located halfway between town and the beach (20 minutes by bicycle in either direction) so we opted to spend one day on the sand and in the water.  The weather was a bit cloudy, but the waves were strong which made for a fun swim.  We had spring rolls and beers delivered right to our lounge chairs so I won’t complain about a few clouds.  Another big highlight were the ruins at My Son.  My Son was the religious capital of the ancient Champa Kingdom which ruled what is now southern Vietnam until the Vietnamese conquered it.  Many of the structures are still standing despite heavy bombing by the US during the Vietnam War.  Seeing the old temples and buildings and learning about the history was a great excursion outside the town.

Danang is Vietnam’s third largest city and we didn’t do all too much here.  We stopped for pictures by the beach on our way down to Hoi An, and we stopped at Marble Mountain on the way back to Danang to catch our flight to Saigon.  Marble Mountain, as you can probably guess, is a mountain… made of marble… which is home to a bunch of cave temples and some great viewpoints north to Hoi An and south to Danang.  Our biggest accomplishment in Vietnam was successfully navigating rush hour traffic on motorbikes in this big city.

While Halong Bay was beautiful, the Phong Nha caves were adventurous, and Hoi An was very relaxing, the highlight of Vietnam for me was Saigon.  Officially now called “Ho Chi Minh City” by the communist government, most locals still refer to the city by its real name: Saigon.  Saigon had some of the most interesting sights in the whole country.  The War Remnants Museum was fairly gruesome in telling the story of the Vietnam War, particularly the section detailing the after effects of Agent Orange.  The museum did have quite a bit of propaganda, but nothing nearly as bad as in Hanoi.  The “Reunification Palace” is the old South Vietnamese presidential palace and was wonderful.  The palace has been kept pretty much as it was when the communists came in and took over.  It shows everything from reception rooms and bedrooms to the command centre for the war and the underground bunker.  I was impressed by the building and it only shows how nice South Vietnam could have been today if North Vietnam hadn’t taken over.

While the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace were my two favourite attractions in Saigon, there was plenty of time to visit a few more.  I felt obligated to see at least one temple while in the city, so I made it the Jade Emperor Pagoda which sits on a quiet residential street and is semi-famous for its turtle pond.  The Ho Chi Minh City Museum details the history of Saigon both before and after its name was forcibly changed to Ho Chi Minh City.  The museum had plenty of propaganda for me to chew on and spit out (I refuse to swallow propaganda.)  The History Museum had many ancient artefacts and the Fine Arts Museum had some really cool works but didn’t have much propaganda unlike its counterpart in Hanoi.  Some of the newer works on display were filled with scenes from the war or were inspired by the war, but didn’t really do so in a propaganda-ish fashion (which sort of helps to illustrate the divide between the mindset of the north and the south.)  I had a drink at the top of the Bitexco Tower – Saigon’s only true modern skyscraper – and took a day trip to the Mekong Delta.  The day trip was… terrible.  The bus ride was long, we barely saw anything, and it just seemed like they were trying to sell us stuff all day.  For those of you going to Vietnam:  skip this.  If you really want to see the delta, go on your own and spend a night there.  The tours from Saigon are pretty rubbish.

Put it in my mouth:
I know this is running long, but it wouldn’t be a blog about a country if I didn’t mention the food.  I ate an inordinate amount of spring rolls while in Vietnam – both fresh and fried.  I had several banh mi (Vietnam’s answer to the sub sandwich) including two banh mi at Banh My Phuong in Hoi An.  This little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was made famous by Anthony Bourdain when he proclaimed it the best banh mi in the world.  I had pho (Vietnam’s answer to a big fucking bowl of soup) and tried the local beer everywhere I went (Hanoi beer in Hanoi, Halong beer in Halong Bay, Huda beer in Hue, Larue beer in Hoi An, and Saigon beer in Saigon).  And just to add some sanity to the mix, I of course had Mexican food in Saigon and western brunch in Hoi An (and maybe I went to the Aussie-run Dingo Deli three times and maybe two of those times I had the breakfast burrito… maybe…)

Despite the propaganda, I really had a nice visit in Vietnam, particularly in South Vietnam.  Sixteen days really wasn’t enough, but I was excited to head back to Thailand to explore one of the biggest, most exciting cities in Southeast Asia:  Bangkok!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in South Vietnam, follow this link:

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