Tag Archives: vietnam

Backpacking Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

Note: We were in Vietnam nearly a year ago, it just took me a long time to post this.
Emily and Uncle Ho
The last stop in our backpacking trip through Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). A city of 7 million people and nearly as many motorcycles and scooters (or so it seemed). The traffic was impossible to avoid, with almost every street choked with vehicles and the noise of engines creating a constant hum. We spent a few days in HCMC, including New Year’s Eve, and used the city as a base to explore the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Saigon at Night
Ho Chi Minh City has more in common with Hong Kong than Hanoi. With a mix of modern skyscrapers, colonial French architecture, and Western-style shopping malls, it was impossible to tell you were in a Communist country.

Saigon Post Office
A lot of the interesting things to do in HCMC center around the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam). We took a day trip to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and spent a few hours touring the War Remnants Museum. Both were excellent.

It's a trap! Spike Trap Tunnel Entrance Skiny People Only Emily Descends Tunnel Dweller Crawling Through the Tunnels
The tour through the Cu Chi Tunnels certainly had a theme park edge to it (especially the shooting range where you can pay to shoot AK47s), but it was still amazing to see the tunnel systems that the Vietnamese created and lived in during the war. I definitely felt claustrophobic crawling through the tunnels, even though they’ve been widened and lit for tourists.

Tanked War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum features a series of exhibits, mostly showcasing the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese people during the war with the Americans. It is interesting to see the war from an alternate perspective. It’s a sobering experience, and some of the the images are disturbing, especially the ones dealing with the effects of Agent Orange and napalm.

Tourist Cart Reflections Palatial Lounge Window Irons
The other interesting tourist site is the Reunification Palace, the former home of the South Vietnamese government which has been preserved in its original state from the day that North Vietnamese tanks came crashing through the gates to end the war in 1975.

New Year's Eve New Year's Eve Traffic
We spent New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City. We didn’t know if there would be a big celebration, as the Vietnamese calendar is the same as the Chinese one and the start of the year (Tet) wasn’t until February. However, we were told there would be fireworks downtown. We wandered from our hotel, following the masses of people until we found a spot with a good view of the skyline where everyone seemed to be sitting around and waiting. When midnight struck, nothing happened and the crowds around us didn’t seem to care. They were just hanging out, and in retrospect it might have been just a normal Saturday night for them. We could hear fireworks in the distance, and see the reflections on the buildings. We tried to get closer, but we were several blocks away and the streets were crowded with people.

Year of the Dragon Bitexco Financial Tower Shark Restaurant
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Backpacking Vietnam: Mekong Delta

Chris and Emily on the Mekong
The Mekong Delta was the most overly-touristy, and controlled places we visited in Vietnam. It’s a gorgeous area, with lots of fresh fruit and warm weather, but the tours shuffle you from sight to sight without much freedom to explore on your own.
Mekong Boat Rice Husk Boat Boat Laundry
It was fun traveling around by boat. We were only in the Mekong for two days, but we traveled on 6 different boats and 2 buses. The highways are faster, but are lined with truck stops and are boring to look at. The rivers are a lot more interesting. There are barges filled with rice or fruit; people living on boats showering on the deck or hanging their laundry up to dry; and temples and stores with their main entrances facing the water.
Captain's Chair Mekong Boat Paddling the Mekong
On Sunday we visited the floating market in My Tho, where vendors park their boats full of fruit and hoist poles into the air to show off whatever they’re selling.
Mekong Floating Market Waterfront Cabage Store Watermelon Grab
The sight-seeing portion of our Mekong tour involved a lot of being shuffled between heavily touristed sights – honey apiary, coconut candy and rice paper making workshops, traditional music, fruit orchards, and a congested row boat adventure.
Coconut Candy Making Rice Paper Rice Paper
Rush Hour in the Mekong Mekong Traffic Mekong Tourists
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Backpacking Vietnam – Nha Trang

Nha Trang Beach Feet
After almost two weeks of backpacking through Northern Vietnam, the multiple pairs of shorts I had packed had barely left by bag. That all changed when we arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premiere beach town. It was “cold” by local standards, but still hot enough to lay on the beach, sip fresh coconut juice, and get a nasty sunburn (at least in Emily’s case).
Nha Trang Beach
Our two days in Nha Trang were dedicated to rest and relaxation. We rented bikes and checked out the Cham Ruins of Po Nagar and the large market. Biking in Nha Trang was easy. Most of the streets had light traffic and the cars and motorbikes are good at giving cyclists a wide berth.
Biking Nha Trang Biking Around Cycling in Nha Trang
Beach Biking One-Legged Crossing Electric Bike Pull
The Cham ruins were an interesting diversion. Compared to some of the other ruins in Vietnam, they’re in remarkably good shape and easy to get to.
At the Cham Ruins Po Nagar Cham Tower
Remains of the Champa Empire Goddess Uma Old Uma North Tower Statue
We spent most of our second day at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Mudbaths. It was fun splashing the mud on ourselves, but it was surprisingly cold. The rest of the pools were hot, which was enjoyable in December but I can’t imagine they’d be that popular in July. I guess the cold mud would be more popular then.
Monkey Mud Bath Mudbath Muddy Woman
Hot Springs Maid of the Mist Lovely Lounging Lady
Pool Shady Loungers Hot Springs Pool Waterfall
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Backpacking Vietnam – Hoi An

Japanese Bridge
Hoi An is a tourist paradise – a compact city centre with well-preserved historic buildings, great restaurants, twisting alleys, and no cars (a blissful change from Vietnam’s other cities). The only downside is its overrun with tourists. The lack of cars and abundance of tourists made it often feel like you were in a sterilized version of the real Vietnam, but I still loved it.
Primitive Vehicles Only
We only spent two days in the city, and I wish we would have spent a few more. We saw most of the sights in the city, took a vegetarian cooking class, road bikes through the countryside, but we never got to the nearby ruins of Mỹ Sơn or took advantage of the hundreds of tailors in the city.
Hoi An Temple Rooftop Statues Fetsive Dog
Deep Fried Banana Fritters Tree Hugger Bananas Texting Monk
Hoi An has a great market and lots of yummy street food. We found an amazing vegetarian restaurant, hidden in a tiny alleyway, that served plates of amazing food for $1. It was so good we back for a second meal. We couldn’t believe how tasty and cheap it was.
Little Alleyway Vegetarian Vietnamese Buffet Quan Chay Co Dam
We splurged in Hoi An and stayed at a resort along the river, it was our Christmas present to ourselves, even if it didn’t feel like Christmas. It was too cold to take advantage of the pool, but the breakfast buffet was impressive.
Merry Christmas from Vietnam Vinh Hung Riverside Resort Emily Chillaxing
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Backpacking Vietnam – Hue

Hue Citadel
Hue was the former imperial capital of Vietnam, between 1802 and 1945 when the Nguyen Empire controlled the country. We were in Hue during the rainy season, and boy did it rain. It made wandering around the outdoor sights difficult to enjoy, but we did our best.
Walking in the Rain Rainy Central Vietnam Soggy Tourist

Hue has only a few interesting sights – the Citadel (the former home of the Emperor) and the pagodas and royal tombs in the countryside. The Citadel dominates the centre of the city, but it is bombed out shell of its former glory. Inside its massive walls there aren’t many buildings left standing. Most were destroyed in the wars with the French and Americans. What’s left gives a glimpse of how spectacular this area used to look.
Citadel Temple Dragon Steps Citadel Wall with Bomb Damage
Citadel Gate Koi Citadel Moat Pond
Hue Citadel

We took a boat tour down the Perfume River to see the pagodas and tombs located just outside of Hue. The guide book said biking between the sites makes for a fun day, but not in the incessant rain we had.
Dragon Boats Hue Imperial Boat Tour Boat Lunch

First stop, the Thien Mu Pagoda.
Thien Mu Pagoda No You Didn't
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Backpacking Vietnam – Halong Bay

Halong Bay Panoramic
Halong Bay is the gem of Vietnam and was the highlight of our trip. It’s impossible to capture the splendor of the area on a camera, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Halong Bay is extremely tranquil, with hundreds of small islands jutting up from the ocean protecting it from large ocean waves.
Karst Sea Shell Fractal Emily + Chris in Vietnam 2011
We split our 3 days in Halong Bay between a party boat with Hanoi Backpackers and adventure touring with Blue Swimmer. On the party boat, we got to drink, suntan, and swim. With Blue Swimmer, we got to do some serious kayaking, hiking, and cycling.
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Backpacking Vietnam – Sapa

Trekking in the Rice Paddies
Sapa is a popular tourist town in the northwest corner of Vietnam that serves as a gateway for visiting the ethnic hill tribes that live in the area. Around Sapa there are rolling hills covered in rice terraces and many small Hmong and Dzao villages, where people still follow their traditional ways of life (although western influence and tourist money is slowly changing that).

Trekkin in SapaMost tourists book a package that includes the train, accommodation, and trekking with a guide, but we contacted a guide ourselves through Sapa Sisters, a group of local guides from the Black Hmong tribe. Our guide, Mao, was excellent and we got a much more personal experience than the larger tour groups had, plus we knew the money we spent was going directly to our guide and not a travel agency in Hanoi.

Market PhoAfter a quick bowl of pho in the market, we were off hiking. I thought it was going to be an easy hike when I saw Mao in big purple boots, but I was wrong – it wasn’t easy, it was just muddy. Mao took us off the main trail and along tiny trails used by the locals. Even though we had a guide, we also had two other women follow us, helping us whenever the trail became slippery or steep. It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch, almost 3 hours later, that they tried to sell us something. Emily bought a small purse. That’s 3 hours of hard work for a $2 sale.
Muddy Trekking Off the Beaten Path Sapa Trekking
Black Hmong Tourist TrapPersistence was a common sales technique for the older Black Hmong women. The young girls relied on their excellent English and their cuteness. I don’t think they understood our responses, but they would ask “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” and a few other stock phrases in perfect English before trying to sell you a bracelet.

I enjoyed the scenery along our hike, even though the hills were shrouded in fog. The view would be amazing in the summer when the rice is in bloom. The highlight of our hike though was talking to Mao about her life and discussing the interesting cultural differences of life among the hill tribes. Most of the tribes in the area originally migrated from China hundreds of years ago. The women seem to be the bread winners and still dress in traditional clothing, while the men are a bunch of slackers. Mao told us the guys have trouble learning English, so all the guides are women. The women also do a lot of the daily work and cooking.
Corn Mill Water Logged Rice Paddies Emily and the Water Buffalo
The most interesting thing we learned from Mao was about the marriage customs. According to her, she’s been ‘married’ to her husband for a year (she’s only 17) and they live together, but they haven’t had a wedding yet. She was hoping that during the new year celebrations, both of their families would give their blessing and then they could have a wedding.

Our night in Sapa was spent at an “intimate” homestay in a small village, or at least that’s how it was advertised. There were 12 other people and enough bed’s to sleep 30, so it was more of a rural hostel. However, the other guests were friendly and it was good to get advice on places to go on the rest of our trip. We had an excellent, candle-lit (the power went out) dinner and afterwards our hosts brought out “happy water” – home-brewed rice wine. It was served from a water bottle, and even though it was remarkably strong, it was also very smooth.
Sapa Homestay Candlelight Dinner Happy Water
MotorbikeThe next morning we got up early for a motorbike ride back to Sapa and then a bus trip to Bac Ha, home to a popular Sunday market. The hill tribes (mostly Flower Hmong) converge on the city to swap fabrics, foods, and livestock. Unlike most of the other markets we visited in Vietnam, the Bac Ha market is largely geared at locals, with only a small section selling souvenirs. While we wandered around taking pictures, Mao went off shopping for dried beans and a purse.
Bac Ha Market
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