Cu Chi Tunnels and Ho Chi Minh City

A visit to Ho Chi Minh city wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels about an hour away by bus. The tunnels were the base for the Viet Cong during the war with America and remained undetected for many years.

secret opening cu chi tunnels

me in cu chi tunnels

The tunnel entrances were camouflaged and very small, and we were able to crawl through 100m of the network to see how it felt – hot, cramped and uncomfortable. Thousands of people lived in the elaborate network and often only emerged at night time.

walking around cu chi tunnels

tank_cu_chi_tunnels

In Vietnam it’s very hard to learn about the history because it’s so one-sided, demonstrated quite laughably by a propagandist video we watched about the tunnels, where we were told that the Vietnamese guerrilla fighters had “a WONDERFUL time hunting and killing the Americans.” As with many historical sites in Vietnam, if you can see past that you’ll get a certain level of understanding of what happened.

The same can be said for the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city, a large museum mainly filled with harrowing photography from the war, supplied by the American photographers who were on the front line. Some of the rooms should come with a warning and I was surprised to see adults allowing young kids to look at images of mangled or headless bodies at the feet of soldiers looking pleased with themselves.

war museum ho chi minh city

I also learnt about Agent Orange (which I’d never even heard of), the highly toxic chemical sprayed over much of the land to destroy crops and food supplies, which killed many people in the process. Babies born of contaminated parents have a whole range of deformities and it’s still ongoing – each generation affects the next, in American and Australian veterans too.

Near to the War Museum is an area of Saigon with a distinctly French feel, home to the Notre Dam Cathedral and a spectacular post office.

notre dam cathedral saigon

post office ho chi minh city

The traffic in Ho Chi Minh is the worst at times, but I managed to cross the roads without being hit, sometimes with the help of nice locals who walked to my side to shelter me from harm and guided me across the road.

roundabout saigon

As I walked through a park with a friend we were stopped by a girl who asked if she could practise her English. We agreed to sit for a couple of minutes and were instantly surrounded by at least 10 others all eager to talk to us. We ended up having a right laugh with them and chatted for around 45 minutes until we got too hungry and decided to leave. They were all university students who come to the park every night to talk to foreigners and I admired their determination and willingness to learn.

students_in_park
Some of the students

At night we went to a busy road in district 1, also known as the backpacker’s area. Ordinary convenience stores become busy roadside bars serving cheap draft beer. Pull up a chair, find a space (whether it’s in an alleyway, at someone else’s table or even in the road!) and enjoy the atmosphere as you mingle with travellers and locals all there for a good time.

roadside bars saigon

Before I came to Vietnam people told me I’d be robbed, scammed and cheated and that the people would be rude, but I’ve found none of it to be true. In fact I’ve had nothing but smiles, friendliness and cheery banter from the Vietnamese. What an incredible country, I’ll really miss it.

 

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Nha Trang, the Benidorm of Vietnam

The night bus from Hoi An arrived into Nha Trang before 6am and I was surprised to see the beach absolutely packed with swimmers, football players, runners and everybody else. There’s nothing quite like being up nice and early in a warm climate and for the locals it’s the best time to be outside, before the sun becomes too strong to bear. Within an hour or so they’ll all disappear only to return in the evening for more outdoor activities by the sea.

nha trang vietnam beach

I call it the Benidorm of Vietnam because it reminds me of all those busy seaside towns on the Costa Blanca or Costa Del Sol in Spain: construction work all around, car horns, sunbeds and watersports, except Nha Trang is full of Russians instead of Brits.

You can find a more peaceful spot though if you walk in a Northerly direction – the road noise isn’t so bad and there are lots of empty sunbeds to choose from.

To my childlike delight I discovered there’s a waterpark in Nha Trang called Vinpearl – you have to get a cable car over to the island which provides views of the coast and the neighbouring islands popular with snorkelers.

cable car to vinpearl

view from cable car to vinpearl

When I arrived I discovered that not only is it a water park but also a small theme park and one of the best aquariums I’ve been to, all included in the ticket price ($25). I decided to go on the rides before making my way to the water park which turned out to be a good plan – they all had massive queues by the end of the day.

toboggan ride vinpearl
Toboggan ride

aquarium vinpearl

I had to put my stuff away in lockers when I reached the water park so I don’t have any photos but it had some good thrill rides and was set around a beach. I went on a weekday and it was surprisingly quiet – barely any queues for slides and easy to get a spare sunbed to leave my non-valuables on. It’s a great day out if you don’t mind spending half a million dong.

Nha Trang is supposed to have a party reputation but I specifically went there for a simple resting beach holiday, treating myself to my own room – dorms are really getting to me again. I just need some uninterrupted sleep! There are some nice restaurants to choose from and cheap beer. My favourite Vietnamese restaurant was called Cafe Des Amis and it served cheap but delicious food. If you’re looking for a beach town with a slower pace of life I heard Mui Ne, a few hours South, is better.

 

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The Prettiest Town in SE Asia?

Up until now the prettiest town I’d seen in SE Asia was Luang Prabang in Laos, but it’s been overshadowed by the glowing lanterns of Hoi An at night.

lanterns hoi an

fishing net hoi an night

Something magical happens at dusk in Hoi An. Watch as the blue sky turns darker and the shops and restaurants lining the riverside light their coloured lanterns one by one, all reflected in the calm water dividing the two sides. Vendors, mostly children or very old toothless ladies, sell candles in pretty coloured card boxes and let you float them off into the river.

candle vendor hoi an

A Japanese bridge crossing the river is also lit and crowds of people pose for photos while dodging the scooters that weave amongst everyone.

river life hoi an

The whole town is quite upmarket with pricier gourmet food to be found on the main streets, but you can still find a bargain – excellent street food near the smaller Japanese bridge and a food court around the corner, and very cheap local draft beer at 4,000 dong ($0.18) that tastes a little like pale ale.

street food hoi an
Delicious street food

hoi an legs

interesting_building_hoi_an

hoi an street

The main method of transportation is by bicycle (a dollar or two per day) and not only can you meander around town but you can also take the main road to the beach, around a 10-15 minute cycle.

beach hoi an

beach at hoi an

bike ride beach hoi an
The bike ride back from the beach

I’ve spoken to people who came here for a couple of days and ended up staying for a week and I can understand why now.

 

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Hue to Hoi An – Top Gear Style

Me and my new Dutch friend Janneke arranged an ‘easy rider’ motorbike tour to Hoi An rather than taking the boring bus – it means an expert drives and we just chill on the back taking photos, and it turned out to be a private trip too, just me and her with our two drivers.

busy road vietnam
Leaving Hue

This particular stretch of road between Hue and Hoi An was made famous by Top Gear in their Vietnam Special a few years ago. That programme was actually what made me want to visit Vietnam so it was extra special to be doing this section by motorbike.

Our bags were expertly packed onto the back, our helmets were secured and we were off, cooled by the wind in the already hot morning sun.

motorbike vietnam flag

Leaving town we sped past mountains and the coast, scenery reminiscent of the bike ride I did in Taiwan to Taroko National Park. The thrill of the ride made me feel like it was the best day of my life, I mean, open air, sunshine, nature and adrenaline, that’s all I need.

Our first stop was a little fishing village where we could watch typical daily life on the coast. Many people live on the boats and can’t afford for their children to go to school. I learnt in the Womens Museum in Hanoi that many of the city street vendors come in from places like this to try and make some money for their kids, and usually only take home $20 per week.

fishing village hue

The next stop was Elephant Falls near Dalat, where tourists were certainly in the minority – it was Saturday so the locals were out in force. In the village we drove through to reach it people were waving and shouting “hello!” as we went past, and when we finally stopped a couple of little kids came up to me to practise their English. So cute!

elephant waterfalls vietnam

The water was refreshing but not too cold, a perfect temperature to cool off and relax in. Some people started jumping off the rocks so I climbed over a bridge to find how to access the biggest one. As I stood scoping it out a young guy caught my eye, held up a glass and said “beer?”. I shrugged, smiled and said ok, stepping down the jagged rocks to join him and his group of friends. They couldn’t believe their luck that a very white foreigner in a bikini had joined them and immediately took out their phones for photos. Their generosity was typical of people I’ve met all over Asia though – they topped up my drink the second I finished it, peeled fruit for me (!) and then shared their entire feast of a lunch with me when it was served to them by the vendor who had cooked it from fresh. I could have stayed all day if I wasn’t on a tour, but eventually had to say my goodbyes and leave.

friends_at_waterfall

The road was still busy on this stretch as we hadn’t yet reached the Hai Van pass, where trucks and buses take a shorter route through a tunnel leaving the road gloriously clear for bikers. It wouldn’t be long before the congestion cleared.

busy mountain road vietnam

Our lunch stop was on some kind of lake or inlet where the seafood was as fresh as you can get – still alive in baskets until you select what you want. Our guides ordered the dishes they thought we’d like best, a mountain of mussels, some with herbs and peanuts, and a huge squid and vegetable stir fry with rice. All this cost around $2 each including drinks – truly amazing.

lunch stop at lake

Feeling full and satisfied we got back on the bikes and finally reached Hai Van Pass. On Top Gear they did the journey in the other direction and when we reached a view of a beach and bridge I remembered what it looked like at sunset when they reached it at the end of their day.

view of beach from hai van pass

The roads were winding along the mountainside with views of beaches and the sea on one side and mountains shrouded in cloud on the other. Every turn gave you a new perspective and my driver kept pointing things out to me and making a clicking hand motion to tell me to take a photo.

hai van pass
Hai Van Pass as seen on Top Gear

“A deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world” – Top Gear

hai van pass

mountain railway on hai van pass

At the top of Hai Van pass is an old American fort from the war and sweeping views of the coast from Hue in one direction and Danang in the other.

the top of hai van pass

hai van pass from the top

hai van pass scenery

The descent towards Danang takes you past ‘China Beach’ (at Danang Beach) where American soldiers were sent for some R&R during the war.

china beach vietnam

A little further along is Marble Mountain and a whole host of shops selling marble statues. When you climb the stairs to the top you can find a buddhist shrine built into the mountain, and caves which you can explore. It looked to me like a film set the way the shafts of light poured down onto the rocks highlighting flashes of green and orange.

marble mountain caves

We arrived in Hoi An in the afternoon and thanked our drivers for an awesome day. If I hadn’t met Janneke I’d have taken a 4 hour bus through a tunnel and would never have had this experience, so for that I’m very grateful. As I’ve said before, it’s always the people you meet that make the trip special.

me on bike
Happy face

We booked the tour through Hue Adventures and it cost $50 each which included fuel and admission fees.

 

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Ancient Hue

The night bus to Hue was 16 hours, a bit of a nightmare you might think, but actually it wasn’t half bad. The sleeper buses in Vietnam give you your own reclining bed so you can actually lie down, and comfort wise it was pretty good (I’m glad I’m small on occasions like this).

vietnam_sleeper_bus

I met a Dutch girl on the bus and when we arrived in Hue we went straight out to explore the citadel; a huge area of dilapidated, damaged and restored palaces and gardens.

citadel gate hue

The citadel is a former imperial city and now a UNESCO world heritage site and you can visit the Imperial Enclosure to see what lies within.

dragon stairway hue

koi fish citadel hue

hue citadel patterns

Outside the citadel walls you can find more recent history – evidence relating to the Vietnam War (here it’s called the American War).

bastion in hue

war plane vietnam

There are many layers of history in Hue and it’s fascinating to explore and learn more. You can also take boat trips to see temples and tombs, but the heat was too much for us to make it possible to see everything in a day. Maybe next time!

 

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Around Hanoi

There are some good museums in Hanoi, my favourites being the Prison Museum and the Womens Museum.

If you can get past the propaganda in the Prison Museum (e.g. “The Vietnamese suffered greatly at the hands of the French but the Americans were treated really well by us here during the war”) then you can learn a fair bit about the history of the place. Senator John McCain was even held here.

prison_museum_hanoi

guillotine in prison museum

The Womens Museum was about the role of women in Vietnamese life, but my favourite part was about the women who fought or led guerrilla groups during the war. It made me realise that courage is one of the most important traits you can possess, and not even in a heroic way. I just mean that courage is a driving force for change, i.e. having the courage to stand up for yourself, to speak out for what you believe in, to face fears and to challenge and better yourself.

Hanoi is a nice city to just walk around – it centres around a lake and there’s some interesting architecture and tasty street food. Just go for a stroll and see where it takes you.

bun cha street food
Bun Cha – Vietnamese street food

cathedral hanoi

dragon by bridge hanoi

lake in hanoi

I’m off to Hue next!

 

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