14.07.2009 - 25.07.2009
Vietnam is doing so much better than Cambodia. Roads were paved, no trash in sight, no sign of prostitution, and children didn’t beg for food. Of course as in any other place in South East Asia, street hawkers won’t leave you alone, but they seem to be fed, and everybody seems to have a scooter and a cell phone.
I had to convince Lennard to go to Vietnam because he, being an America and in the military, had not-so-appealing images of Vietnam associated with war. Besides, he didn’t know anybody who had taken a vacation in Vietnam. But I, being a teacher in Korea, knew plenty of people who had been to Vietnam. Lennard’s impression of Vietnam changed the second day, once he got over people’s stares in Nha Trang.
Our first destination was Nha Trang, the beach city. But since there is no international airport in Nha Trang, we had to fly to Ho Chi Minh City first. When you land in Vietnam, expect a rush of heat and mist, sudden thunderstorms, intermittent showers, and flood of motorcycles moving in all directions.
Nha Trang was nice and clean. The buildings all seem freshly painted. Countless hotels around the beach, and people very tourist friendly. The beach is long and clean and is very popular among locals. At 5 am, the beach is already crowded with people swimming, jogging, and working out. Children fly kites and adults get together for a chat and snack. Nha Trang beach is a lively place, day and night.
I went snorkeling the second day in Nha Trang while Lennard was getting his scuba certification. Third day, Lennard, our French and friendly diving instructor Emmanuel (Coco diving) and I went for two dives. The first one wasn’t so interesting, low vis and not many fish. But the second one in another location was amazing. He asked us if we feel comfortable to go cave diving. We decided to give it a try. The underwater cave was packed with fish. We swam through it and although I got a bit claustrophobic, it made it to the other end. It was an amazing feeling swimming slowly with the fish and letting them examine you and swim around you.
The water we dived in was near some caves where Swiftlet birds nests are collected. Bird nests are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The caves are guarded by the police to stop illegal collection of the nests. Swiftlet birds make their nests using their saliva, and when their nest are collected, they start building another one, to the point where their saliva gets bloody and their nest red, which makes the nests even more expensive. We saw small pieces of the bird nests for sale at the airport starting from 175 USD, and 300 USD for the red ones. Apparently many of the collectors risk their lives by climbing the walls of the caves to get to the nests.
At night, we ate at Louisiana, an upscale beachfront bar/restaurant with a swimming pool and live band. It didn’t rain, it wasn’t too hot or humid, the band played my favorite songs from the 80’s, the meal was yummy, and the night couldn’t have been more perfect.
I learned early on the trip that in restaurants nothing was free. The wet napkins on the tables, water, or the peanuts are all for sale and will be added on to your bill should you consume them. This took a while to get used to because in Korea, you get loads of free goodies with your drink or meal.
After Nha Trang, our next destination was Hoi An, the shopping haven of Vietnam where you can get tailor made clothes for reasonable prices. I had planned to change my whole wardrobe in Hoi An, but the prices were not as low as I had expected, so I settled for work clothes only: 4 suites, 10 shirts and a long winter coat.
Hoi An is beautiful. It has many things in common with other former French colonies: French architecture, good food and baguette! Hoi An reminded me of Saint-Louis and also Goree Island in Senegal . It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, old, charming and romantic.
My days in Hoi An consisted of waking up early in the morning, shower and have breakfast, then hit the tailor shops for fittings and ordering more clothes, go back to the hotel around 5 with sore feet, and rest for the rest of the night, preparing for another day of shopping. The first day, a young girl convinced us to check out her tailor shop in the market where I ended up having three suits and 5 shirts made, and it turned out to be the best of the tailor shots I ordered from. I also had couple of shirts and a winter coat made at a tailor shop which advertised itself as Lonely Planet’s #1 pick. Their work was OK but not as good as the one in the market. I also had a suit and shirt made at Lanna because their nice roomy shop had caught my eye. But again, the little stall in the market turned out to be the best of the three.
Hoi An was hot and very humid, maybe because I was out shopping during the hottest time of the day. If I go to Hoi An again, I’ll probably plan my days differently: I will stay at the hotel’s pool all day and then go shopping after the sun goes down. Hoi An is beautiful at night. The art and souvenir shops turn on their colorful lantern lamps, and the yellow/red-walled old buildings look incredible. We went out on the town on our last night in Hoi An and regretted not having spent other nights out on the town. After 4 days, I was glad to leave Hoi An because I was way over my budget for clothes. I was like a little kid in a candy shop, greedy and wanting more. I was constantly thinking about new designs, styles, and colors for new clothes. It’s amazing to know that you can have any clothes you want made. Show a picture or draw it, get measured, and pick it up the next day.
On our last night in Hoi An, I wanted to see China beach but found out that it’s about an hour away from where we stayed, so we went to Hoi An beach. It was infested with little crabs and sea bugs which I heard come out only at night. We had dinner and took abuse from some hawkers, then headed back to the hotel without dipping in the water.
We also took a cooking class in Hoi An, and learned how to make Vietnamese style crispy pancake and rolls with rice paper, pork, shrimp and veggies. Vietnamese ingredients take ages to prepare but the cooking itself doesn’t take too long.
Our last destination, Saigon, turned out to become one of my favorite cities in South East Asia. Saigon is full of life. Hundreds of motorcycles at every traffic light, and when the light turns green, there’s a flood of motorcycles and scooters rushing through the road. They are everywhere, so many that we jokingly thought at some point in Vietnam bikes are given away for free to everybody at birth!
At the park across from our hotel, people relax in the shade, children play, and cyclos rest. At night, a large number of women gather to do aerobics in groups. Men kick the shuttlecock and many jog. It’s a peaceful and lively place to relax and watch people. There are many many tourists in the tourist area of the town (equivalent to Korea’s Itaewon) but outside that area, there are not many foreigners or tourists. At the night market, everyone seemed to speak good English, but at the other market outside the tourist area, none of the salespeople spoke English.
The cyclos (bicycle taxies) and scooters are inexpensive means of transport in Vietnam. The cyclos are slow and give you a chance to see the town. You can hire them for a negotiated price although they are infamous for scams. We hired a cyclo to take us to a market, only to find out that he dropped us way before our destination and we had to take a cap again to take us there. But if you know where you’re going, and be firm with the price, cyclos are a fun way to get around the city. We hired a cyclo in Hoi An to give us a tour around other side of the river and it was an amazing ride.
The night market in Saigon reminded me of Hong Kong Ladies’ market. The outdoor restaurants open after the sunset and are great places to try Vietnamese food.
In the tourist area of the Saigon there are many travel agencies selling bus/fight/ tickets to Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos for very low prices, as low as 12 USD. If I had more time, I would definitely hop on a bus to Laos for a couple of days.
I would say the thing I liked most about Vietnam is that there is no sign of prostitution as oppose to Thailand and Cambodia. In the bars, you don't get a woman for every drink you order, and no one knocks on your door in the middle of the night offering 'massages'. I didn't see any 15 year-old girl walking with a 65 year-old man hand in hand deeply in 'love'. If a foreign man and a Vietnamese woman check into a hotel, they need to show their marriage certificate. And Vietnamese women dress and act conservatively. I was relieved to see that their economy and tourism industry does not depend on sex trade.
Vietnam is better and more developed that I had imagined. The country is very tourist friendly, Vietnamese people didn’t stop smiling and approached me many times for friendly small talks, calling me Miss Saigon and asking me if I’m half Vietnamese! The palm trees were enough to make me happy. I wished I had one more day in Hoi An to go to China beach, and one more day in Saigon to see more sites. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit north of Vietnam, where I heard is very different than the south. So a combo Laos-North Vietnam trip is now on my list.