Vietnam has its share of sights and the people are colorful as well but for me, the highlight is the food. You have to not only try as many different dishes as you can, but you should make a concerted effort to eat in local restaurants too. Not only is the food better (and cheaper!), but you can sometimes interact with the owners and that can make a trip that much better.
Fondest memory: There is a moment in every trip where it all seems to make sense, where you finally turn the corner and feel you have not wasted your time traveling so far. Vietnam had been disappointing up to this fateful night in Hue and wouldn’t you know it, it all came down to a bowl of soup. If Hanoi’s cold climate and equally frigid populace had been a rude introduction to this much anticipated portion of a two-month southeast Asia trip, then the weather remaining dismal on arriving in Hue all but had us making a beeline for Cambodia.
The city was a relief after the hectic pace of Hanoi in the midst of pre-TET celebrations, but gray skies and drizzle did little to convince us we had not made a big mistake in leaving Laos after merely two weeks. The food scene was a bit disappointing as well with my anticipating the ancient capital a culinary highlight on the trip down the coast to Saigon. But just when all seems for naught, you come across one of those places that make travel all worthwhile. (Continued below in My Fondest Memory)
Fondest memory: On the first night, I had asked at the hotel about some of the local delicacies Hue was known for and the friendly receptionist made some customized markings on the city map she had handed me earlier in the day. I had utilized the information to find an inexpensive and very authentic Bun Bo Hue, a spicy beef noodle soup related though not entirely similar to national dish Pho Bo. But this was not the bowl of soup that changed my mind about Vietnam. Though it had been an interesting diversion and glimpse into true city life in Vietnam; I had no one to share it with, having left Doreen in the room to avoid the wet weather. The next evening, she accompanied me to another place I had spotted the previous night. I gathered it served Bun Cha Cua, a crab paste noodle soup from what I saw brewing in the kettle. We quickly found it again and though the fluorescent lighting and lack of any customers were hardly enticements to enter, that is exactly what we did. (Concluded below in My Fondest Memory)
We sat ourselves at the small plastic tables we had grown accustomed to in Hanoi. Perhaps more seedy and rustic than even the worst dives we had experienced thus far on the trip, the owners were by far the most friendly. Since there was only one thing served there, it was not hard to order though we only wanted one bowl, as Doreen was unsure if she would like it. The tasty soup was on the table in no time and its rich broth was all it took for us to order another. Of course, this made the owners happy, as we obviously were enamored with their product. They even brought us out some extra meat and a fried rice cake of sorts. This being my last night in town, I figured I would never find it again, so I ordered yet another bowl. This had the locals scratching their heads, but after polishing it off, they must have figured out I was just hungry and enjoyed their tasty concoction.
It was getting late and with a bus to catch in the morning, I motioned for the bill. When the owner asked for 1,500 dong, I sheepishly handed over the equivalent of one US dollar. It was little to ask for a meal we enjoyed so much. It was even less to ask for the hospitable treatment rendered, something that made coming so far finally worthwhile.
My fascination with Vietnam was fuelled by films set there, especially war films:
"The Deer Hunter" (1978)
The first truly great film about the Vietnam War. Winner of 8 Oscars. It shows the effects of the war on a group of friends from a steel town. Great acting from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. Who could forget his Russian roulette scenes?
"Apocalypse Now" (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Nominated for 17 Oscars. Influenced by Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", it's memorable for Marlon Brando's portrayal of mad Colonel Kurtz and the famous scene where the choppers sweep down to the sound of the Dance of the Valkyries.
Directed by Oliver Stone and winner of 4 Oscars, it gives a US soldier's view of the war. It was a ground-breaking movie in its dark realism. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe are superb in it
"Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987)
Directed by Bary Lavinson and starring Robin Williams, It is based on the true-life story of DJ, Adrian Cronauer, the star of Saigon's American Forces Radio.
"Full Metal Jacket" (1987)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. A War Vet told me this was his favourite film about the war. It was filmed in England. I saw it on DVD and was a little unconvinced because I was aware that they were just running around English sets.
"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)
The second part of Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy stars Tom Cruise as a disillusioned, paraplegic Vietnam War Vet.
"Heaven and Earth" (1993)
The final part of Stone's trilogy was one of the 1st attempts to look at the war from a Vietnamese perspective. It has beautiful cinematography.
"We Were Soldiers" (2002)
Directed by Randall Wallace and starring Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, it was filmed entirely in the USA, but still gives a very realistic portrayal of what it was like to be under seige.
Tran Ahn Hung's film follows a young cyclo rider in Ho Chi Minh City as he and his family struggle to survive.
My colleague Andree-Claude at work would like to go to Indonesia for her vacations at the beginning of this year. Since we had a lot of turmoil in Indonesia recently, I suggested her to go to Vietnam. Finally she decided to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. I have made her an itinerary tracker so she can post live her move every couple of days, written her diary and communicated with her family and friends.
View Andree-Claude itinerary.
Vietnam has some glorious sandy beaches, many of which are almost totally deserted.
This is Lang Co beach between Danang and Hue. Some of the best beaches are at Nha Trang, Mui Ne, My Khe and Cana. In Danang you can see Red Beach, where the first American troops landed in 1965. It is now completely deserted. The nearest beach resort to Ho Chi Minh City is Vung Tau, but my personal favourite was the 5km-long beach at Nha Trang.
Vietnamese markets, or cho, are some of the most colourful and fascinating in the world. I also found them incredibly friendly places. Some of the best ones are Ben Thanh, Binh Tay and An Duong in Ho Chi Minh City, Dam in Nha Trang and Dong Ba in Hue.
You can eat a delicious bowl of noodles full of fresh ingredients, at a market stall for around 70 cents.
:: Internet service for backpackers in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand ::
It is pretty much easy to get Internet connection in Vietnam and Thailand as well as anywhere else.
- In Kampuchea and Laos, it is difficult to find the Internet apart from the places frequently visited by tourists.
- There is no internet connectivity in the north of Laos, nor in the south completely.
The following is the list of accessibility to the Internet Cafe services in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and the cost per hour. It may vary from place to place but the difference is negligible. For the full list please go here.
If the link above is not working, please go to:
Vietnam is a tropical country and one of the best places in the world for fruit and fresh fruit juice. I loved the Vietnamese durians, mangoes, rambutans and longans.
The strange-looking pink fruit in the foreground of the picture is thanh long or dragonfruit. The fruit itself doen't have much flavour, but the juice made from it is delicious. Try some at one of the many juice stalls. There is a great fresh juice cafe opposite Sinh Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, so you can try some while you are waiting for a bus.
My fascination with Vietnam also led me to read every book about the country that I could lay my hands on. These are the ones I remember best:
"The Quiet American" Graham Greene
The first book I ever read that was set in Vietnam. The story, concerning a love triangle and covert operations, takes place in 1950s Saigon. I saw the film more recently. They are both good.
"Dispatches" Michael Herr
I'm not sure whether this really is a favourite.Slightly incoherent memories of the war, but this book was a bestseller.
"Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War" Michael Maclear.
The most comprehensive and readable history of the Vietnam War.
"Saigon" Anthony Gray.
This epic novel follows the lives of a host of characters over the period 1925-75. A great read.
"Chickenhawk" Rober Mason
Mason was a helicopter pilot who flew more than 1,000 assault missions in Vietnam, 1965-66. One of the greatest first-hand accounts of the Vietnam War: much better than Dispatches.
"A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain" Robert Olen Butler
This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of 15 short stories about Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana. It is beautiful prose, but hard to get involved in.
"The Sorrow of War" Bao Ninh.
The war from a North Vietnamese soldier's perspective. This semi-autobiographical novel won several awards. As the title suggests, it is a sad tale.
Officially this train was called the S4, but everybody referred to it as the Ho Chi Minh Express or the Reunification Express. This is one of several trains that run daily from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, by way of Biên Hòa, Xuan Loc, Nha Trang and lots of other places along the coast or just a short ways inland.
The distance from Da Nang to Hanoi is 791 kilometers (about 491 miles). When I took this train in 1995 it took all night and all day, arriving in Hanoi several hours behind schedule at 16:00, that is four o'clock in the afternoon.
This was my least comfortable train trip in Vietnam, because the bunks were all sold out so I booked a "soft seat", which turned out to be sort of a garden chair with a canvas back stretched across a metal frame. Unfortunately the metal frame was just big enough for the average Vietnamese traveler but much too small for a Westerner, so I had parts of the frame jabbing into my back no matter how I tried to sit.
At that time Vietnam still had a dual pricing system in which foreigners paid much higher prices than Vietnamese for the same journey, but I have read that this system was abolished in 2002, so now everyone pays the cheaper Vietnamese fares. Also I'm told that the Vietnamese trains have been very much upgraded in the past fifteen years, so the seating is more comfortable in all classes than it used to be.
Next: Hanoi, 1995
Look at this fruit bar on the street. Can you count out how many fruits they have - mango, avocado, durian, pineable, banana and many I just don't know their English name.
All girls can't deny the temptation from the sweets, same to us. We just jump around and can't stop looking at this most colorful and delicious place. We come here two times a day, at least, especially the first day we just re-visit here within 2 hours.
This is something you just can't miss by visiting Nha Trang.
Fondest memory: Fruit Shakes are the best.
USD exchange rate: 1 USD is roughly 15,300 VND. The USD is widely used in Vietnam's cities. The Euro is exchangable, but not as popular.
Larger notes (i.e. 100) often get a better exchange rate than smaller ones.
Visa and American Express cards are accepted in major hotels, restaurants, and shops in the urban areas. But you sometimes have to pay 1-2% fee on top of your bill price.
Travellers Cheques are easy to change at banks and moneychangers all over the country.
Commissions are generally 1-2% of travellers cheque value. But HBSC and some other banks charge up to 5%!!
Actually we wanted to get some photos of Vietnamese children riding on water buffalo, but they don't seem to do that as much as they used to, or we just weren't in the right place at the right time.
Water buffalo are domesticated animals in Vietnam and are often used to pull plows and such. In general seem to be peaceful animals, but in the 1960s and 70s there were rumors among the American troops that Viet-Cong-sympathizing farmers were training their water buffalo to attack American soldiers.
I never saw any such thing, but some Americans who were in Vietnam in the late 1960s claim to have been attacked by these animals.
1. A water buffalo near Đà Lạt, 1995
2. Water buffalo pulling a cart near Đà Lạt, 1995
Next: Transporting bulky goods on a bicycle, 1995
Warm, friendly people.
I had read some visitors' opinions that Vietnamese people are quite rude and aggressive. From my personal experience, this is not the case.
I found people everywhere to be warm, friendly and helpful. The problem may be that often, the first Vietnamese people many foreign visitors encounter are the cyclo riders of Ho Chi Minh City. Some of those guys are so desperate for money that they do tend to forget their manners. If you see the Vietnamese film, "Cyclo", you'll know why.
This lovely lady works at a market stall in HCMC.
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