We had heard many different and mixed reviews of Vietnam. We were not sure if we would be up to traveling through this country. I know I was a little apprehensive due to the past our countries share. Funny thing is Vietnam became one of the best times we have had on this trip.
Not only were the people great, but the food was fantastic and the different towns we traveled through are must sees for anyone coming through SE Asia.
We arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) by bus from Phnom Penh. They dropped us off in the heart of the busy city and we grabbed a taxi to our hotel. After checking in we went out for dinner and walked around a bit. We went to bed early because the next day was a big event. My birthday!
So, today was my birthday, and no better way to spend it then visiting the War Remnant Museum. Talk about a heart wrenching and gruesome place. One whole floor was dedicated to photos of war victims from Napalm and Agent Orange. It was so bad that we made the kids wait outside of the exhibit.
Without getting political it made me a little ashamed to see what our government did to the innocent bystanders of this war. The people of Vietnam are still feeling the effects of the chemicals we experimented with during the war. “The Girl in the Picture” is an informative and provocative book about how a napalm attack changed the life of one young girl from Vietnam. It is very strange to see things from a totally different perspective. Walking the halls of the museum you are reading and seeing the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. Granted it is skewed propaganda, but it is still quite different from what we hear at home. Whether I believe or agree with what I am seeing and hearing I feel it is important to get opposing views to world events to gain a better understanding of it.
To brighten up the day we decided to attend a water puppet show.
A water puppet show is where the puppeteers stand under the stage, which is a pool of water, and work the puppets with long sticks. On the sides of the stage are musicians that are playing music, singing, and narrating the performance. Alex and Tyler thought it was dorky, but Nick, Amy, and I actually quit enjoyed it.
One of the biggest challenges walking around Saigon is the dizzying amount of motorbikes on the roads. They are going in all directions and onto the sidewalks. You have to keep your wits about you or you will get run over. The part that takes the most guts is crossing any roadway.
The roads are crammed full with over 6 million motorbikes so it is quit a challenge to get from one side of the road to the other. It turns into a real life game of human Frogger. The trick is to plunge into the moving river of motorbikes and wade your way across to the opposite side. What is amazing is the fact that as you are crossing the street the flow of bikes part around you like you are Moses and the Red Sea. The roads are chaos, but there is a method to the madness. It seems to work for them.
The next day we took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. These are the tunnels where the Viet Cong and Cu Chi rebels hid and attacked the American soldiers. It was a little strange to be inundated with the propaganda from the Vietnam government about the war at this site. We were shown a movie and given the opportunity to pose with Viet Cong soldiers. Ah, no thank you. I felt the whole thing a little weird for Americans. It made me think and remember all the soldiers who must have died in that area and what they had to endure.
Looking at some of the booby traps that the enemy used it must have been horrific. However, at the end of the tour was by far the best part. Alex and I got to get our Rambo on and fire an M-60, M-16, and AK-47. I think I could have stayed there all day emptying clips into the targets.
After Saigon we headed to the coast to the little seaside town of Mui Ne. This place is a windsurfer or kite-boarder’s paradise. The week we were there was a World-class kite-boarding event.
Everyday we were there we hung out at the beach and watched some of the best kite-boarders in the world fly all over the place. At times there were over 50 boarders in the water at the same time. I looked like the kite festival in Long Beach, Washington but with people attached.
The place we stayed was right on the beach and at night Amy and I could sit outside and listen to the waves crash against the shore and read our books on the deck. It was paradise. The food was good too. Our place was right next door to a restaurant that served fresh seafood for dirt-cheap. Nick liked it not for the food (he won’t eat anything) but for the sand floor. While we ate he could make sand castles.
Through the hotel we booked a tour to see the white and red sand dunes just outside of town. The boys wanted to go sand boarding since they enjoyed it so much in Patagonia. We were picked up in a jeep and first driven to a spot called the Fairy River. This wasn’t someplace we initially wanted to go, but it turned into a pretty cool place. The colors through this canyon were spectacular and the kids enjoyed the hike. Next stop were the white sand dunes where we were able to rent sleds to go down the dunes. The kids were mad because they weren’t boards like in Patagonia, but they had a great time all the same. After plunging down huge white sand dunes headfirst we took off for the red dunes to enjoy the sunset. However, on the way we got a taste of the local Vietnamese police corruption when our driver was pulled over and had to bribe the officers with a little money. Good thing they didn’t need any ID because I had left everything back at the room.
By the time we got to the dunes people were already setting up for the sunset. It did not disappoint. Unfortunately it was a little windy so we cut out right after the sun went down and headed back to town.
We didn’t want to leave Mui Ne, but it was time to head up the coast to Na Trang. Na Trang was a big touristy town with huge hotels and lots of people. This was our first taste of diving in SE Asia and Vietnam. We tried to go with our hotel, but there was a bit of confusion and we ended up singing up with Octopus Diving.
It was just Alex and I diving and the others were going to snorkel. The diving was actually pretty good other then the trash that was on the bottom and top of the water. We got a chance to see our first giant cuttlefish and a huge school of squid. Viz wasn’t very good but we had a good time with Octopus Diving.
Moving on, we continued up the coast to Hoi An and China Beach. This was hands down our favorite place in Vietnam. It was a quiet little town with an old world charm. There were three parts to the town. The first part was the local part and held the schools, businesses, which had the most tailors I have ever seen, and their homes. I think they are born and bred to make clothes and shoes in Hoi An. There are tailors ever few meters. The second area consisted of the old town. It was cut off from motor vehicles after 5pm and contained art galleries and some incredible restaurants.
We took a cooking class at one of the restaurants and tried our hand at making some of the local dishes under the guidance of the owner. The third place was China Beach. It was a big and beautiful and mostly empty stretch of white sand. The only drawback was Tyler getting sick from one of the restaurants along the beach.
Our biggest joy was biking around Hoi An and the surrounding countryside. We flew through the streets ringing our bells and dodging people, tuk-tuks, and cars. We rode everywhere from China Beach to the Old Town.
The only other issue we had was that we almost died on a dive boat. Now I am absolutely not being dramatic here. I was positive that we were going to capsize. It never gives one reassurance when you look back and see a look of terror on the captain’s face. The situation was that we were heading into a channel that had a cross current. The idiot captain kept steering the boat parallel with some of the larger waves. My only thoughts were how I would get Nick and the boys out from under the boat when it went over. Seeing that I am writing this we didn’t die, but we did have to remove our hearts from our throats.
Our last stop in Vietnam was Hanoi. I was very excited to get there and into the heart of ‘enemy territory’. Hanoi and Northern Vietnam are quit different from the Southern part.
This was the center of the Viet Cong during the war and still is rather staunch in their communist beliefs. Nonetheless, we really enjoyed the city and the people. We were rather disappointed when we tried to go to Halong Bay, which was a 4-hour one-way trip, and got turned away from our two-night boat trip. The whole bay was shutdown due to fog. We were bummed out until we realized that we had a 4-hour trip back to Hanoi (insert sarcasm). Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s number one tourist sites and one of the most beautiful places in all of SE Asia. Weather can’t be controlled, so it is something we will have to plan to do in the future.
We spent the rest of our time exploring the city by foot, walking around the downtown lake, and joining the locals for movie night at the Cineplex.
One of the historic places we toured was the Hanoi Hilton.
There we saw John McCain’s flight suit and the cells where they kept their prisoners. Very strange being in a POW prison.
One thing to look out for in Hanoi, if you are ever there, are the deceptive cab drivers. We ran into one that had jimmied his meter by moving the decimal point over to left on the kilometer tracker. He tried to overcharge me but I told him to shove it and gave him some money and walked.
The family and I were pleasantly surprised to find out we loved Vietnam. We traveled from Saigon up the coast to Hanoi and ended up wanting to spend more time in the country. However, the south islands of Thailand were calling and the beach was waiting.