Vietnam : When you hear it, the first words that come to your mind are probably ‘Vietnam War’. Well, Vietnam’s got a potful of history, but it’s also got a potful of beauty and another potful of culture.
We flew into Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon (Capital of former South Vietnam) on the 16th of February from Phenom Penh, Cambodia. Check out my Cambodia blog -> click here.
Once we got off the plane, we were greeted by swarms of crowds of people, everywhere, after getting a sim card and exchanging some money. We were hungry, and it was breakfast time. Burger King was on one side, and Popeye’s on the other. The Popeye’s cashier did not really understand us, and there was nothing vegetarian except biscuits for my mother. We went over to Burger King. The cashier understood us, and was able to do a burger with just tomatoes, lettuce and cheese. The french fries were cold, and the coke was over-iced.
We had to catch a bus to Can Tho, so we headed off quickly by taxi to the bus station. Vietnam is one of the only five communist countries in the world. The others are N.Korea, China, Laos and Cuba. We later learnt that even though there is only one communist party, Vietnam is not exactly communist, because not everyone gets equal shares and education/healthcare is not free, etc.
The bus was very different and very innovative. It was a double-decker bus, with seats where you can extend your legs. You’re meant to take off your shoes, and when getting off at a break stop, they give you slippers!
We reached Can Tho, a town famous its floating markets. Can Tho also has a beautiful promenade by the Can Tho River, a branch of the Mekong River. The two floating markets we visited were – Cai Rang and Phong Dien. At night, electric lanterns are lit along the promenade. We began our search for a boat the next day. We wanted a boatman who could speak basic English, take us to the Rice Noodle Factory, through small canals and to both floating markets for 600 Dongs. One dong is $22,700. Usually, prices mean three zeros in the end (multiply by 1000). Its really hard to understand sometimes.
We were able to find a couple of people, some didn’t know English, some weren’t professional at all. We decided we’d just take the chance of getting a boat in the morning. We ate at the #1 rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. Its was not fancy, and had good prices. It had things like snake, crocodile and ostrich on the menu! (We didn’t try any!)
The next morning, we set off from our hotel at 4:30 AM. We reached the dock around 4:45, and we saw the same faces as we did yesterday. We went to the lady who was most professional, and knew the best English. She got very angry. It reminded us of our very own country. She said “I told you yesterday! You no book yesterday!” In brief, she was very angry that we didn’t book yesterday. Soon enough, we found a lady who was willing to take us at a good price and also take us wherever we wanted. Her younger sister was our boat-girl, and she was extremely nice. She knew good English, and was very kind.
Cai Rang was the better floating market of the two. It had so many more boats, and so much more variety of selling items (mainly fruits). We bought a coconut and a coffee. The boat selling looked like a chemistry lab! It had vessels, pots and jars full of things and steam coming out of several! The coffee and the coconut were both amazing. Wholesale boats (bigger ones) sold goods to the smaller boats. It was a unique site indeed.
Phong Dien, the other market was much less lively, with only about 15 small boats selling things. Nevertheless, a floating market is still unique.
The rice noodle factory was also unique. We saw traditional people making the traditional rice paper used for noodles and spring rolls. It was not a proper factory, but it was the traditional way of making it with no machinery.
We sailed through several small canals, with mangroves and water coconuts on both sides, reminding us a little of the Amazon and the Sunderbans. We stopped at the fruit gardens, and had a juice there. We got to see the local village there as well as several fruits.
That pretty much ended the day, and honestly, it was not up to expectations. Plastic was filled in the water, and continuously got stuck in the motor, and once, a small bird or butterfly flew out of a plastic bag!
The next day we headed to Bentre (pronounced Ben-Chaay), by taxi. The taxi ride lasted about 2 hours, and was very comfortable. We reached in the evening, to Oasis Hotel. We were here for 2 nights, and 1 day.
The next day we did the tour of Bentre. In all, we visited a coconut factory, a coconut candy factory, a mat weaving factory and had lunch at a local place. We also got to generally ride on a boat around the area. Keep in mind that these factories, are not proper buildings with uniforms and rooms for different activities.
The boats were really fascinating, with two eyes painted in the front to scare away crocodiles! So innovative!
The coconut factory produces various goods such as cosmetics,bowls, etc. Coconuts, we learnt, were the main source of livelihood for many. Since we went on a weekend, most people were off duty, but we got to see men husk coconuts one by one. We learnt that the men earn money based on how many coconuts they can husk in a day. If they’re fast, they earn $15-18 a day. They also have to send their kids to school. In a communist country, you’d expect school to be free. Hong, our wonderful guide, told us that when she was in school, school was $6 per year. Now, its $50 per month! If you calculate, that’s $600 per year. 100 times the amount of when she was in school.
The next stop was the coconut candy factory. First, they put the coconut milk into a big pan over a flame along with some sugar and an additional ingredient to make it flavored coconut candy (chocolate, durian, etc). Then, they continuously stir it for about an hour until it becomes as thick as required. Then, they let it cool down for about 5 minutes. Then they spread some oil on a table, so that when they mould it, it wont’t stick. They mould it using a small piece of plastic/paper/cardboard (was not sure). They leave it for a long time after moulding to cool. Then, they wrap it in their desired wrapping (usually paper) and pack it off. We bought an original flavored one, as well as a chocolate flavored one. They also had snake/scorpion wine to try! My dad tried it, and said it tasted like bad whiskey!
Next stop was a mat weaving factory. Locals weaved sedge grass into mats extremely fast on a traditional weaver. It was incredible! My mother tried and was 1/10 times their speed! Many people from villages still prefer to sleep on these as they keep you feeling cooler.
After that, it was lunchtime. We had a wonderful meal, specially vegetarian for my mum. We also got to see fresh spring rolls made live, using rice paper, water and the filling! It was great! After that, we returned to our main boat by small boats through small canals, and we got to wear traditional rice hats!
We departed the next day to Ho Chi Minh City, satisfied with what we had done here. We ate a wonderful (DELICIOUS!) at Hum Vegetarian, highly recommended on TripAdvisor. Its very close to the War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants Museum was awesome! It gave us such a great insight to the Vietnam War and Agent Orange especially. We were truly devastated at the amount of damage that America caused. It really made us cry, and is a must to go to.
Much worse effects of the Agent Orange were shown, but we were much too devastated to even take a picture. 🙁
For more info -> click here. I will be sure to upload a summary of the Vietnam War after some time.
In the evening, we went to the Ho Chi Minh square, the more posh area of HCMC. The classic HCM statue is there, along with many restaurants, cafes, and shops. We also saw girls wearing to local attire – Ao Dai, similar to the Salwar Kameez in India.
Another highlight of HCMC was the Cu Chi Tunnels. We had a fantastic guide who was hilarious! He told us to call him Mr.Bean (Hahahaha!) and he was a great guide. The Cu Chi Tunnels were built by the North Vietnamese guerrilla forces to hide away from the Americans. They strategised, ate, slept and did almost everything in there! Its crazy small and they used to run! Mr.Bean said that the main reason the Vietnamese won was because they didn’t eat hamburgers! The Cu Chi Tunnels extended upto hundreds of kilometers! But we only walked about 40m before we felt claustrophobic! You are allowed to walk 120m maximum.
Other than that, HCMC doesn’t have much. The reunification palace had really bad reviews, so we decided to skip it. HCMC is just a big city. From HCMC, we flew to Da Nang, and drove to Hoi An.
Hoi An is a very beautiful little town, not much ‘sightseeing’ to do, just a beautiful vibe around. It is also known as the ‘Home of Vietnamese lanterns’. It has beautiful Japanese and Chinese architecture that make up the ‘Old Town’. Hoi An is a big tourist destination and you can do lots of souvenir shopping here.
From Hoi An, we went to Hue. Hue is known for its tombs or the Emperors and its citadel. We were greeted by fog, rain and clouds. The tombs are much prettier than the Citadel. The Pagoda is also very beautiful.
From Hue, we went to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. Honestly, we shouldn’t have given it as much time as we did. In Hanoi, the main attractions are the Vietnamese Ethnology Museum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, the Night Market (Friday evening to Sunday evening), the Hoa Lo Prison and the Riverside.
Next up was the famous Halong Bay. It is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Its a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went on the Bhaya Premium Cruise, and we didn’t regret one bit of it. The crew was fantastic, the boat was fantastic. We had only 12 other people on the boat, and we also got free a free Tai chi lesson and cooking class! The food was also just DELICIOUS! Our crew manager – Huy was absolutely great, and made sure that everything was nothing less that excellent from our view.
We also got to visit Surprise Cave, which reminded us of the Jenolan Caves in Sydney.