We walk around town with our backpacks looking for a convenient place to stay. The prices for accommodation seemed to be way higher than we were used to paying. One of the highlights of our stay in Chau Doc was the food. Cheap fruit and sweets stalls were to find all around, and we discovered a place that offered high-class vegetarian food at local prices and with a huge variety. It was a Com Chai, somehow a kind of pure vegetarian restaurant family run that can be found everywhere in Vietnam, although it is not a chain nor same in every place.
Can Tho and the floating markets
What do 4 tourists do in a local bus traveling through the Mekong Delta? Well, among others, have fun!! It was a long walk from our hotel to the local bus station in Chau Doc but it was really worth the effort. Once we arrived there we found out that hotels and travel agencies sell out tickets of the same buses at higher prices than in the station and then impute it to the rise in the prices of petrol, not to their commission.
So we bought our tickets, got on the bus and were surprised of seeing some local people on very wide costumes filled up by what it seemed to be their flesh –something weird if you think that the average Vietnamese is quite skinny. After some minutes the bus had moved and had crossed the first police checkpoint on the road, we could finally know about this mystery.
The province of Can Tho is our next destination. We found a cheap homestay and arranged with them a boat trip to the floating markets for the next day. For a few dollars per head, we spent 8 hours navigating rivers and small canals, visiting noodle factories, fruit orchards and floating markets in the Mekong Delta. It was a nice day out with our guide who took care of everything and fed us constantly with local delicacies. A journey that we will not ever forget, in which we could develop our skills in the Vietnamese language. So, we learned to say hello, bye, thanks, papaya, and many other useful things…
Again, another highlight of our stay there was the food and to find another Com chai restaurant with many more tasty dishes which we could not believe it was not meat or fish.
The Mekong Delta towns of My Tho and Ben Tre
We reached My Tho by local bus after a 4 hours ride on a bumpy road. The stop was a few kilometers away from the city center, in the middle of nowhere. Once again we were lucky and a minibus took us for free from the side of the road to the river shore, where most of the action happens in town. We didn’t like it much and expected to find a much authentic place in Ben Tre town, just a 15 minutes ferry and an overland ride of 12 kilometers on the other side of the river.
We found a good place to eat first. We can not believe that we are not getting fat with such amounts of food we are having in Vietnam. We took the ferry and crossed to the Ben Tre province, a more remote area that can only be reached by boat.
Thanks to our big smiles and to some nice words to local people we got another free ride from the pier into Ben Tre town -12 km under a very heavy rain that was about to flood the sides of the road. We got wet that afternoon looking for a place to stay but a “Com chai” restaurant helped us to recover our strength and to prepare for a boat ride through small river canals on the next morning.
This time our boat was too big and the canals too small, so we had to push the prow away from the shore vegetation again and again. This made us be slower and made the whole journey shorter but the beauty of the surroundings (water coconut trees covering all along the edge of the small water canals) and a number of inhabitants we met on the way made it an interesting excursion to see the life in the canals.
Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh on the early afternoon just at the beginning of that day’s showers over the city. The idea was to wait for a release of the rain by having a natural fruit juice in one of the many cafe-bars in Phan Nung Lao area, where the backpacker hotels and scene concentrate. Time passed by and it never stopped raining, so we decided to move and look for suitable accommodation to our needs… something cheap.
In Ho Chi Minh City the price for the accommodation was expensive for Southeast Asian standards so far. We finally stayed at a place with free internet in lobby and a non-operating fridge in the room, not before getting soaked under the heaviest rain we have seen so far.
During our stay in the city, we did not do much sightseeing but wandered around many areas of town and found lots of beautiful corners and houses to stop at. It is a shame of the traffic all around the city, which pollutes the air acoustically and environmentally. The most interesting area was China Town, where we spent a whole day admiring the herbs shops, the scripts on the facades and the architecture.
Much more interesting than the city itself is the man who gave a name to it. Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is referred to by every admirer, spent his life fighting for the independence of the country and he did it apparently quite well since he has become the most admired figure in Vietnamese history. It is not strange that his face is to be found everywhere in Vietnam –although it is not as repetitive as the King’s face in Thailand.
Mui Ne, the lonely beach
The first impression we had once we arrived in Mui Ne was Holy shit! Where have we arrived? Our bus stopped at the beginning of that 10 km long beach town, right at the door of a 4-star resort, which was surrounded by many others of the same category. We didn’t feel comfortable there and the first thing we did was to ask for a mass tourism free spot in town. Luckily, there were still some places further north where we could stay cheaper and without the annoyances of high luxury tourist services and so on.
We found what seemed to be the cheapest hotel in town, a nice bungalow shaped hut full of mosquitoes but almost first line on the beach. We were the only guests that day and had a portion of the beautiful palm-fringed white sand beach just for our personal use. We spent quite a lot of time walking along the shore until we arrived at the fishermen settlement and came back to the hotel just on time to see the sunset. A beautiful moment.
On the next day, after doing some sport at the beach, we rented two scooters and head to the Red and White Sand Dunes, two of the highlights of any visit to Mui Ne. It was a pleasant ride of 10 and nearly 30 kilometers respectively to arrive there, and we had a great time rolling down the dunes and playing around like kids. The next day we continued our trip northeast, to the mountain town of Dalat.
Dalat hill station
The reason to come to Da Lat and Buon Ma Thuot was to come closer to South Vietnam’s highest altitude, to the coolest climate in the area and to the coffee production center of the country. The Swiss Alps of Vietnam, as Dalat is known because of its surrounding nature, would be the perfect place for us to explore the surrounding valleys and hill tribe towns. While wild, beautiful and green nature was easy to find everywhere around Dalat –we were riding a motorbike and could take several offroad tracks-, the tribe people were kind of hidden to our eyes and we could not get an idea of what their customs and activities are.
It was a pleasure to visit some 3-or-4-houses small towns where we were received as VIPs with hand-waving and smiles and it was really good fun to ride the motorbikes up and downhill on muddy paths, although I ended up by sticking my leg in the mud.
The people were nice, the food was good, the air was clean and the area was very green. Our visit in Dalat was great although short because we wanted to move further to Buon Ma Thuot, which at the end did not fill our expectations and left us with a little of a bad taste in the mouth.
The serene city of Hoi An
Hoi An has been the most beautiful city we have visited so far in Vietnam. It took us long to get there from Buon Ma Thuot. Very long, around 24 hours and two different bus rides, but it was worth the effort!! The first bus we took left us in the catastrophic coastal town of Nha Trang, a highly tourist-polluted place with high hotel and resort buildings, cable car to a nearby island resort and every kind of sea sports activities for upmarket tourists.
Once we were able to see how things looked like in town, we decided to catch a sleeper bus on the same evening to go to Hoi An and spend there the minimum possible time. We were lucky enough to book the last two berths available for that night’s sleeper bus.
So we slept on the bus that night and arrived in Hoi An early in the morning. It took us some hours to find the proper, cheap hotel to stay and then we walked the streets in the city center. From the beginning, we were delighted by the charm of the old city.
Small streets with no 4 wheelers and old, beautiful French, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture not exceeding 2 storeys. Luckily the city largely escaped the destruction of successive wars and it is still possible to admire ancient Chinese merchant houses and other old buildings, retaining a sense of history more than any other place in Vietnam.
Only the large amount of souvenir and present shops and their touts calling your attention from the door were a bit annoying, but you could easily manage to say NO and they would not insist more. According to our guidebook, Hoi An is the place to get a suit made in Vietnam, so many tailors and shoemakers were quite busy measuring arm brights and so on. The clothes looked nice but we didn’t even think about buying anything. We already carry enough weight with our 10 kg backpack!
Hue, the capital of the Nguyen emperors
Hue is one of the jewels of Vietnam and many ancient, Vietnamese style buildings would still remain intact if the war would have never happened. It was first the French, later the American, who bombed and destroyed one of the marvels of the country: Hue’s citadel. The complex is located within 3 concentric stone walls of around two meters thick, each of them keeping the security and the privacy of the one inside.
The first wall and also the longer one runs along the Perfume Riverbed and was the entrance to the city itself. The second one, the imperial enclosure housing the emperor’s residence and the main buildings of state, separated citizens to the emperor’s court and nowadays keeps vehicles outside its limits, which makes the visit much more quieter and nicer. And the third one gave access to the Forbidden City, inhabited by the Emperor and his concubines.
It is a pity that there are only a few intact buildings left because the beauty of the area is thought to be similar to that of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. The majesty of it all remains in the ruins anyway and one can imagine how well the Emperor’s family could have lived within the walls.
It is a pleasant day out visiting the complex although it can be tiring because of its size. Very remarkable for its beauty and good state of conservation is the Emperor’s Reading Room, which is unfortunately used nowadays to store rubbish and useless stuff and it is not possible to visit inside. Actually, very few of the remaining buildings can be visited inside and one can only imagine its inner splendor by watching old pictures of them.
Appart from the citadel, Hue is crossed by the beautiful Perfume River, which can be navigated with tourist boats, although we didn’t do it. The water is clean and clear –something uncommon in rivers passing through a city- and we were tempted more than once to jump into it and have a swim. Definitely, we liked Hue because of the Citadel and the river, although we found Hoi An much more authentic and beautiful. If we come back to Vietnam again, both cities will be on the list!
Hanoi is, well, Hanoi is busy!
Many travelers had explained good things to us about Hanoi, so it sounds really exciting to us and we were looking forward to visiting it since we entered the country some weeks ago. We arrived by sleeping bus early in the morning and had to walk with our backpacks for a couple of hours before we could find a hotel room in a good condition and for less than 12 USD.
Our first impression of the city was so-so: small streets with loads of traffic, drivers sounding their horns every 5 meters, pavements being used as a parking and not as a walking path… and three basic things for us, coffee, food, and accommodation, were expensive. What did people find so cool about Hanoi? Honestly, we found the south of Vietnam much more interesting and appealing.
Once we had left our bags in the room and we were able to walk around the city center we started to feel much more interest about the city. The old quarter has nice buildings and alleys and many of the shops remain with an old feeling that could transport you to some decades ago. But there was still the traffic and the noise!! We spent some hours looking for a quieter place to sit down, have something to drink and relax although it seemed to be impossible in the area. So we tried to walk further away but didn’t find any place.
At the end, we chose the Hoan Kien lakeshore as a way to be more distant from the traffic, what ended up by being a good idea. From here we could watch and learn about the life of some locals and about the habits of some tourists, who always do what other tourists do, like taking the same picture of the same thing from the same place –i.e. a picture of the red bridge in the lake.
Another day we went on an independent walking tour proposed by our guidebook and visited the highlights of the city –according to the book. It wasn’t as interesting as we had expected so we thought it had arrived the time to decide our next move, whether Sapa or Halong Bay. In Hanoi, there are thousands of travel agencies and hotels who organize tours and excursions to any destination in Vietnam.
All of them offer similar things but travelers should be aware of false operators who have just copied the name of a reputed agency. This makes the search for the perfect tour a little bit more difficult. Besides, the never-ending number of different tour options can confuse the traveler and make him undecided.
Boat trip in Halong Bay, unforgettable!
Once in the north of Vietnam, we had to decide whether going to Sapa or to Halong Bay because our one-month tourist visa was running out soon. Two factors determined our choice: on one hand, the bad weather conditions in the northwest region of Vietnam, on the other hand, a tropical storm which had flooded and communicated the northern region of Sapa, leaving hundreds of deads and homeless people behind.
We could only go then for a boat trip in Halong Bay. As it is usual on our trip, we asked for advice in many different travel agencies and checked the internet to make our move independently with all the info available. This is how we found Cat Ba Ventures (www.catbaventures.com), a tour operator based in Cat Ba, the biggest island of Halong Bay, who offers tailor-made boat trips for independent travelers.
We booked a 3 days/2 nights trip and paid 90 USD each. We arranged more or less the plan for every day: sail in the morning to a nice spot, go on the kayak for a while to hidden lagoons and caves and have a swim, then eat and do the same in the afternoon in another spot. Overall we wanted to avoid tourist places and crowds. We wanted to go further away than the normal tours go. We wanted to be alone most of the time and sleep in a different secluded place every night. We wanted many things and almost all of them were accomplished.
Halong Bay is spectacular and the weather conditions were great (sunny, cloudy and few big storms during the nights, which gave a feeling of adventure to the whole experience), as well as the arrangements of the organizer. Basically, we had a wooden and bamboo sailboat for four people.
We could decide where to go and where not to go if we wanted to stay longer or not. We could stop the boat and take the kayaks or just jump off the boat for a refreshing swim in the middle of nowhere –with some restrictions, of course. The crew was great although we had kind of communication problems sometimes when we had the feeling they had not understood what we were asking for. They cooked so well and so much that we are missing their food a lot now. We have to say that we ate the same lunch and dinner during the 3 days with slight variations, but still great food!
The taste of village life in Vietnam
Village life in Vietnam is the richest form of ancient culture tinged in modern times. Vietnam is located in South East Asia and is an “S” shaped country. About 3.77 million people visit the country every year and the main tourist attraction for the country is its village life. Vietnam has beautiful highlands and glimmering green rainforests. According to a BBC report dated 7th April 2011, by 2020, Vietnam will emerge as a developed country.
The face of the country is made of its social forms and structures. The interaction amongst the social agents and other socio-economic organs, craft the cultural heritage and reform legacy with the sustenance of the original roots of development. Villages are the basic units of Vietnam society.
Most villages have typical architectures like village gates made of bamboo and wood, bamboo hedges around the houses, common wells for all, expanded greenery of fields, pasture lands to roam, chirping birds, cattle and the masters’ shout, alleys and enchanting fresh air to breathe in. Village life in Vietnam is characterized by the ancient form of religion. In every village, there is a temple and the tutelary God is worshiped there.
Village life in Vietnam has distinctive features of robust people, hard work, agricultural activities and ancient form of handicraft. The finest beaches grace this country. The ocean waves kiss the white sand beaches in all laziness, creating a melodic atmosphere during dawn and dusk. The gentleness of the environment has blessed village life in Vietnam with purity of thoughts and cooperation. It is hard to believe that even in this era of bloodshed, genocide, war, and rages, nature has still nurtured a natural oasis of peace, purity, and greenery of innocence.
I have a lot of friends from Vietnam and many of them are from villages or small towns. They gave me all pictures that I published in this article. At the present, Vietnam is developing fast and according to my friends, villages are the best places for you to experience the old Vietnam cultures. In cities, old cultures are almost changed and people became modernized and busy.
Village people in Vietnam value social events and traditions like birthdays, temples of forefathers, ancestral fete and etc. They live in big families and it is found that most of the village habitats share the same lineage or in some way relate to the same blood connections. There you would find the village democracy with man-woman equality, helping the organization and flourishing of the villages. Nearly all villages are agro-based and hence agriculture and dazzling handicrafts form the very basis of their economic activities.
Once you get in touch with the village life in Vietnam, you would never be able to rub out the experience of purity and natural romance in your life. You may even find yourself utter (in mind) a few lines from “In Time of The Breaking of Nations’” by Thomas Hardy “ yet this will go onward the same”.