Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Vietnam: A Love/Hate Relationship Part I

Vietnam - November 2019

Ho Chi Minh, commonly referred to as Saigon, is a big bustling city where everything is moving, all the time. The sidewalks are full of scooters and street carts and their is the ever presence of people whizzing by on the streets. They don’t typically go in a straight line though; more or less a dance to avoid the next guy pulling out in front of them or merging blindly into traffic. To ride a scooter here is for the most experienced tourist and even then it’s a whole new level of crazy.

Driving a scooter in Vietnam: same side of the road as the US and scooters are everywhere. After all, they are 90% of the vehicles on the road. Watch for entering scooters and yield to bigger vehicles as they enter blindly. Oh, also if you ride near the edge of the road, scooters come down the wrong way there often too. And on sidewalks. As you approach an intersection you better have your head on a swivel cause it’s like kamikaze style coming at you. Best to find a scooter gang to ride with. But they are not your friends either. They will leave your ass behind. It’s a cruel world on a scooter. For this purpose we did not ride one, here. Walking was terrifying enough and crossing the road you have to just walk out in traffic usually.

We spent 4 days in Saigon and it was enough for us; the craziness was too much for our liking and there is so much beauty to see elsewhere in Vietnam in the countryside. The few sites we did see were worth visiting the city but could have been done in less time. First off, get the Grab app. It’s a lot like Uber and the cheapest way to travel in Southeast Asia. Tuk tuks are everywhere but Grab has better rates by nearly half of what they charge on the street. Another app is Gojek and has even better rates but isn't as in many countries.

Along with a lot of walking, we saw few things around Saigon, including the Bitexco Tower, the Cho Ben Thanh market, Quang truong Nguyen Hue, the Independence Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and a host of other neighborhoods along the way. The tower has an observation deck above the city with 360 degree great views. The cost however is $10 a person so we went to the cafe and got food and drinks for less than that, with a view! The market was like most markets, tons of people trying to sell you the same shirts and trinkets with a high price to start. A good place for cheap souvenirs that won’t last long. Quang truong Nguyen Hue is a lovely place to walk and take in the atmosphere without the fear of being run over.

They have many gardens and a few fountains that lead to the statue of Ho Chi Minh and a government building that’s pretty but we could not enter. The Independence Palace is a similar type of environment. The (American) War Museum was very interesting and depressing. They provided a look at how brutal both sides were and the effects it had on both sides. To this day, agent orange is still affecting people. On a lighter note, it is fun just to explore the city on your own and see what you come across and little markets here and there.

Outside the city we found the Cu Chi Tunnels to be fascinating but the information on the tour was lacking a bit. We were able to walk through a few of the tunnels and take in a short lesson in history which made it seem like it was generally a bad idea for the US to be there. The tunnels were a network that spanned 250 km (155 miles) and were hand dug. They were used extensively in the war to house soldiers and civilians and had many booby traps set for opposing forces. It was brutal to see the jungle warfare implored. Two of the more fascinating facts I found were that the tunnels went under an American base and some of the entrances were underwater in the river, James Bond style. They created many genius systems to avoid detection, such as a smokeless kitchen that would disperse the smoke away from the entrances and without detection, especially in the early morning fog or night.

The town of Da Nang (about halfway up the coast) is much quieter and a beautiful place to take in the beach. It’s not as popular as other ones nearby but we found it peaceful with less people. Hoi An is south of it apparently a beautiful city and Hue is north of it with a beautiful mountain pass along the route. We would rent a scooter here to get around. On Saturday and Sunday night, the town lights up, literally. One of the bridges is shaped like a dragon and breathes fire. Two hours to the west is the increasing popular “hands” bridge built in 2018 (it has a high cost of $90 for us both to get there and get into the amusement park) so we skipped it. It was foggy anyways in the mountains. Instead we took in the beach, ate some great food, and took a scooter up to Hue and back. Fabi even found a French Michelin Star restaurant to check out, because of course she did.

The beach was calling our name and was quite empty as we were a good distance from the popular area; it was relaxing after coming from the city. The first night in town, we were feeling a bit lazy and decided to order delivery through the Grab app. It came from two places and we laughed as the drivers from each showed up at the same time and exchanged perplexing looks. The people here were much friendlier than those in Saigon.

We rented a scooter the next day and explored the famed Hai Van mountain pass on the way to Hue but got a late start at 11 and the rental place thought we were crazy...maybe. It provided stunning views throughout with the threat of rain always there but never really coming. As we crossed over the pass a big overlook provides views of the route down, twisting and turning often. It was a fun ride and had beautiful scenery; we even made a little detour and went through the outer beach route through small towns and beaches dotted here and there. While beautiful, it cut down on our time in Hue and took us nearly 4 hours to get there. Beautiful but long. Hue was a happening town but we only had time for some food and then needed to return to Da Nang. As it turns out, we would be halfway into our ride when the sun went down. I ended up following another bike for a while with better headlights and couldn’t use my freshly bought sunglasses because of the tint. It was a bit crazy and made a long day and made for some sore butts!

The Michelin Star restaurant was a totally different experience than either of us had expected. We had dined earlier in the day with some street food that cost us $2 a person and this place would be roughly 25 times more expensive - so much for traveling on a budget! We started off the night with the scooter to see Mother Buddha on the peninsula. She is the biggest Buddha in Vietnam and the grounds are impressive. Many bonsai trees and statues fill the surrounding area and provide great views of the ocean and city below. As we continued on to find the restaurant further on the peninsula, it seemed like very few people were going this way, but not much was down there besides some high end places to eat and a hotel. We found what looked like the entrance and made our way towards this massive resort. On both sides we beautiful trees and flowers as we were driving through the jungle. Even at night we could tell it was impressive. Upon following my phone, it led us to a gate with a guard. Sitting here on the little scooter, we felt a bit out of place. He was very nice though and helped us make a reservation at La Maison 1888. We were in! Following the road down to the entrance and parking our scooter, we found our security escort to the restaurant. This place was massive and so very beautiful as we snaked down the hill and passed massive villas overlooking the ocean. It was unlike anything we had seen before and would be amazing to stay in.

The restaurant was elegantly decorated and beautiful in itself. We had worn our best clothes but were still slightly under dressed for such a fancy place. As Fabi went to the bathroom to take off the hiking pants under her dress (for warmth on the scooter) the hostess asked a few times if we were celebrating anything so I agreed that it was a wedding anniversary. Maybe not the best move in the end but oh well. The service was outstanding and we ordered an appetizer and dessert to split. They brought as some hors d'oeuvres to start. All the food was scrumptious and the dessert was massive. Then they brought us another dessert to follow and a third one as well. The last one being the best - raspberry soufflĂ© and ice cream to celebrate our anniversary. We couldn’t afford a meal on our backpacking budget (the duck for two was $125) and we felt bad but still had an amazing experience at the restaurant and only spent $90 on an appetizer, dessert, and a few drinks. It would have been 50 times more expensive than our lunch! I think they could tell we had a limited budget at some point but were very nice about it. As we left, they took us to the top on their very own tram. It went from the beach to “heaven” and we learned there is a monkey on the campus that is very rare and endangered. I wanted to come back the next day to see it in the light but didn’t quite have to time. It was a great experience to say the least and something very different for both of us. A place you’d go to on a honeymoon or if you are rich. 

Read the full trip chronicles, here.