Ho Chi Minh City

We are back in Ho Chi Minh City! We came back to HCMC because we are meeting our friends in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Originally, we wanted to go from HCMC to Hanoi. After we purchased our tickets, our friends told us they can meet us in HCMC, travel to Cambodia, then Thailand. We were very excited to have our friends fly across the globe to meet us and show us around from their experiences. However, things never go as planned. They couldn’t meet us in HCMC because of time constraints so we will meet them in Siem Reap, Cambodia. 

Independence/ Reunification Palace

The appearance of Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant city.  Everyone is ready to get going to their next meeting point, whether it is for business or pleasure.  Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the day, we had the ability to see everything from a bus’s perspective.  The transportation is more organized than Hanoi but still chaotic with motorbikes everywhere driving on the sidewalks.  Backpacker central also known as District 1 is where we spent about 6 nights.  The setup was mainly the same as the Hanoi.  Central markets, numerous vendors, street food are everywhere. But, gigantic 7 floor malls are within skyscrapers. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the Vietnamese New Year (Tet), year of the rat, everyone is preparing for this gigantic celebration.  Tet is the biggest holiday celebration.  Some say that family all over the world flies back home to celebrate Tet with their family.  Unfortunately for us, we missed the celebration by a week.  Preparation for Tet is enormous, they were closing off streets, building structures, choreographing dance, transporting many objects during our arrival.  Even before our arrival some streets were closed off and structures were up for Tet.  Watching them prepare for their annual Tet holiday lead to excitement because of the time and preparation leading up to the new year.

We walked to most of the touristy things in and near District 1, except for the nightlife.  Spending three days downtown going to Independence/Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office. and ventured outside for a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.  Tourism within the districts of Ho Chi Minh City are devoted to the First Indochina and the American/Vietnam War.  More information was provided in the American/Vietnam War than the First Indochina War.  Significant yet morbid photographs are posted in the War Remnants Museum.  The photographs were intense, The States would omit most of the photos.  The photographs would describe the horrible atrocities of the Americans attempts to help win the war with torture and killing to the use of phosphorus smoke and agent orange. Unfortunately, this lead to The States to use numerous types of gases to draw out the Vietnamese out of the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were interesting because they are a vast underground system. But, this method lead to many Vietnamese to asphyxiate inside the tunnels.  

Tour Guide, Lam, standing in a concealed underground door.

Coming to Ho Chi Minh City is enormous with many things to do throughout.  With the amount of time that we had, I am glad we got a different perspective from the war.  If i had to choose again, I would, at minimum, go to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Just those combined would help gain a better insight to the Vietnam/American War efforts from the Vietnamese.  I will admit my knowledge of American History is poor after World War 2 but visiting these sights helped put together a better understanding for myself.

Widened Cu Chi Tunnel for Westerners

Hue, Vietnam

The city of Hue, Vietnam is a quiet little city.  After going through Sapa and Hanoi, the city itself is a slower pace.  Instead of the food vendors walking around selling their delicious pastries, numerous people with motorbikes stationed in front of stores or riding around trying to convince you to rent a bike from them.  Sitting inside a coffee shop, one stationed himself in front of the shop. He began talking to the people at each of the tables, while they were enjoying their conversation or eating. Firmly, the gentleman is introducing renting a motorbike for the day or tour to Hoi An. To admit his defeat, he never encountered a sale during our stay. 

Entrance to the Imperial City

Aside from the continuous pressure of motorbike rental salesman’s, we head to the Imperial City.  Now inundated with locals pitching themselves as ‘official tour guides,’ we march toward the ticket booth.  We purchased a bundled ticket for the Imperial City and 2 Royal Tombs. Acclaimed one of UNESCO’s heritage sites, the city’s beauty is still under restoration and unfortunately some renovations during our stay. The Imperial City flooding with symmetry for the entire compound and each building.

Luckily, the bundled tickets we purchased allow 2 days of exploration. If we purchased the Imperial City with 3 Royal tombs, it entitles you 3 days.

Drenched from head to toe, we enter each tomb with my sandals and her shoes squeaking and water sloshing around.  Renting a motorbike is a terrible idea during monsoon season. Tu Duc’s tomb was the first.  Unfortunately, this tomb was not in our bundle.  Our bundle included the Khai Dinh King and Minh Mang Royal Tombs. 

Of all the tombs, the Khai Dinh King tomb was the most magnificent with the symmetry and delicate placement of mosaic dragons along with paintings of dragons with Chinese scriptures.

The most serene I thought was the Tu Duc tomb. Pleased with its serenity and beauty, I produced two photos. Personally, I enjoyed the Tu Doc tomb’s because it incorporated a nature aspect of many coy ponds and a Buddhist ‘island’ comprising miniature pagodas, mini statues, bonsai trees, and dwarven pine trees.

Khai Dinh King Entrance
Tu Duc’s Entrance

The Stele is Tu Duc’s autobiography of himself. The largest Stele in Vietnam.

Tu Duc’s Stele

The Minh Mang was wonderful as the Khai Dinh King without the detail and less serenity as with the Tu Doc’s tomb.

After a few hours in the rain, we retired and headed back to our hostel. We remained warm and continued on with our journey. Now preparing for a 2.5 hour train ride to Da Nang, Vietnam.

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

Boarded two buses from Sapa heading toward Hue with a pit stop in Hanoi, the journey is almost 25 hours total.  Sapa is a beautiful town filled with enormous culture. Four tribes, four different languages, one thing in common, all of them meet in Sapa to introduce their culture, food, traditions, and way of life to the tourists.  Consequently, the tribes suffer from tourism to find a balance between old traditions and modern life. Speaking to a native born in Sapa, she mentioned that tourism is taking away their cultural identities.  Their own dialects are becoming extinct, trying to learn English, Spanish, and French to sell their products or tour their villages for a living.  On the other hand, their handcrafted dresses for both women and children, pillow cases, purses and other goods are gorgeous. One caveat of the tribal people are the tribal women when walking through town.  The moment you stand still, this becomes their moment to swoop in and speak to you.  They strategize their sales tactics with shopping and hiking. Responding no courteously knowing they want to sell something, now they begin a casual conversation. Evading several times, they stay persistent and follow for several minutes and up to several yards.  Working passed the tribal women, walking is the best way to get from opposite sides of the town because of the road structure.

Peak of Ham Rong Mountain

Plenty of attractions are found in and around town such as the Mường Hoa Valley, Fanispan Mountain, rice terraces, and Ham Rong Mountain.  Upon our arrival in late December midst monsoon season, Sapa was cloudy, rainy, and jacket weather cold. But the cloudy and rainy environment brought a mysticism to Sapa.  Floating mountainous islands in the sky are unforgettable moments. 

Trails of Ham Rong Mountain

While waiting for days for the clouds to clear, we drew our attention towards the rice terraces than Fanispan Mountain.  Though the mountains were lushly green, the paddy fields beautifully stacked and brown. Onward, we paid 70,000 dong a person and trekked up Ham Rong Mountain. While hiking up the mountain, we noticed the cable car operating to the top of Fanispan Mountain.  To watch the gondola lift, haul itself up the mountain and disappear into the clouds would be a bust to peak Fanispan. 

Trúc Lâm Đại Giác Zen Monastery

Travelling during monsoon season presents its challenges. Sapa presents its beauty even during monsoon season only through preparation.  As prepared as you are, the main attractions may not be ready for you because of renovations or under construction.  Wear the right shoes in December and possibly January is a must, otherwise water will soak through your shoes and sometimes sink into the soil. Overall, we had a pleasant experience with the short hike up Ham Rong Mountain and the cloudiness of Sapa.

– Walter

Ho Chi Minh City

Visa Process

Ho Chi Minh City was our original visit to Vietnam. Our arrival was not smooth sailing like entering Mexico. With our three-month Visas in hand, we entered the “All Passports” line. Waiting about 30 minutes in line, we approached the guard. He reached for my papers and glanced them over then looked at me, said “over there,” pointing at his 5 o’clock position with his hand behind him and returned my papers. Our failure was we did not receive the official Visa inside our passport. We head in the direction where the guard pointed and waited in smaller single line with our documents.

Sitting and Standing for almost 2 hours…

After 10 minutes, we approached the security counter, surrendering our papers and passport over to the guard, accepting them without us knowing our next move. We ask the surrounding people the entire process and they said; you submit your papers and passport and wait for them announce your name.  Sitting and standing for almost 2 hours someone announces my name with an almost unrecognizable accented pronunciation. I stand up, head to the counter, pay the stamping fee (25 dollars for a single-entry), and finally receive my passport. NOW I CAN HAVE A BEER! NOPE! Now, we have to wait in the line we were before, except the lines were longer. We reach the counter, a different guard accepts our passports and looks at us and asks us when we are leaving.

Flight, Bus, or Boat… to prove our disappearance…

I told him, “in about 40 days.” The guard began requesting a flight, bus, or boat, something proving our disappearance of Vietnam. Researching for months, we did not encounter this in any other people’s experiences. Luckily, our friends meeting us toward the end of our Vietnam trip had purchased everyone’s flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We presented Jamie’s phone with the flight and FINALLY he let us proceed. Now, we have to fly to Hanoi…

-Walter