Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

          With Vietnam well on its way to star status in the modern world, its citizens seem to be reconnecting with their colorful history and embracing the many positive aspects of the country’s past.  Perhaps that is why the original name of its largest city has slowly crept back into general usage, with ‘Saigon’ now preferred by many, particularly in the younger generation, to ‘Ho Chi Minh City’.  A tourist destination as well as a gateway city to Southeast Asia, Saigon is an eclectic mix of old and new.  This became readily apparent to me after I checked into an upper floor of my hotel not far from the architecturally stunning Bitexco Financial Tower and could hear a rooster crowing!

Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

The Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

Sights of the City

          For someone who’s walked the cities of Paris, Budapest and Moscow, hoofing it around Saigon was a walk in the park.  Beginning my walking tour in the late afternoon and continuing into the dusk and evening I covered the major sights, including the Independence Palace, the Parisian-style People’s Committee Hall, the Revolutionary Museum and the Opera House.  I got an unexpected treat while checking out the War Remnants Museum when I ran into the visiting Austrian president’s motorcade.  And who would have thought that the Central Post Office would be an architectural wonder or that there would be a beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral in Saigon!

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

The War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Friendly Folks in a Vibrant City!

          Everywhere on my wanderings around this beautiful city I ran into friendly people.  At one point a group of four young men approached me and explained that they were college students and wanted to interview me for a school project.  We had a very friendly encounter that left a great impression on me and deepened my respect and admiration for the people of Vietnam.  As darkness fell, the lights of the city really brought it to life.  There seemed to be motor scooters everywhere, loaded with people, sometimes even a family of four, out enjoying the evening.  On my way back to the hotel I had fun watching the fishermen along the Saigon River and got a spectacular view of the Bitexco Financial Tower all lit up.  But there was one more stop to make.  What visit to any city would be complete without taking in the market scene.

New Friends in Saigon

New Friends in Saigon

The Thanh Lien Hotel

          To save time, I had taken the one hour flight on Vietnam Airlines from Da Nang Airport to Saigon, after visiting nearby Hoi An.  At the airport I was able to book a room at the Thanh Lien Hotel for $50 and after a quick taxi ride for $11, I was checking into my room by midafternoon.  The hotel was ideally located and a nice buffet breakfast was included in the price.  I had a clean, modern, well-appointed room with en suite bathroom.  The friendly front desk staff members were able to help me book a bus ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia for the following day.  The Thanh Lien Hotel had everything I expect in a hotel, including great location, friendly, helpful staff, reasonable price and a clean, safe environment.  I can highly recommend it as an awesome accommodation during your visit to Saigon, Vietnam.

Thanh Lien Hotel, Saigon

The Thanh Lien Hotel, Saigon

A Photo Tour of Saigon, Vietnam

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

Centerpiece of Vietnam

          Located midpoint between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, Hoi An is an ancient city that is on the bucket list of most visitors to Southeast Asia.  This picturesque little hamlet dates back to the 1500s when it was an important trading port, accounting for the obvious influence of Chinese and Japanese merchants apparent in the splendid architecture throughout the town.  The pleasant overnight train from Hanoi to Da Nang took almost 20 hours and cost about $45, which included a comfortable bed with sheets provided.  The ride took us through some beautiful country and provided plenty of time to relax and meet some of my fellow travelers.  We arrived in Da Nang around 3 PM the following day and I took a taxi to Hoi An for about $16.  The 20 mile drive took us past the famous China Beach area and the Marble Mountains.  When I asked the taxi driver for a recommendation, he took me to the Phuoc An Hotel, which turned out to be an excellent place to stay.  The hotel came with a bicycle and I was soon out riding around Hoi An with the big boys!

John in Hoi An, Vietnam

John in Hoi An, Vietnam

UNESCO World Heritage Site

          Even if your hotel doesn’t come with a bicycle, Hoi An is an easily walkable town for reasonably fit travelers.  Most of the important sights can be seen in a day, including museums, historic old homes, assembly halls and temples, most notably the Quan Cong Temple.  Two of my favorite sites were the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Central Market.  The shopping in Hoi An is to die for and bargain hunters will find they don’t have enough room in their packs to bring home everything they would like to purchase.  It’s especially fun to walk along the Thu Bon River promenade in the evening, enjoying the beautiful panoply of lights that illuminate this little burg on both sides of the water.  It is in this heavenly setting that you must make a momentous decision…from among the many, delightful and inexpensive cafes and restaurants, which will you choose as a place to sit and relax and have your dinner, all the while taking in the ambience of this other-worldly place.

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Descending Dragon Bay

          During your trip to Hanoi, Vietnam be sure to set aside one day to visit Halong Bay, which literally means ‘descending dragon bay’.  When you get there you’ll see why.  The unique panorama that awaits you is characterized by hundreds of limestone karst formations protruding from the water in a stunningly beautiful array.  There are many tour operators who will pick you up right at your hotel in the city for the 80 mile drive to the Gulf of Tonkin where this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located.  The two hour ride will take you through some beautiful scenery and give you a taste rural life in Vietnam.

Karst Formations, Halong Bay, Vietnam

Limestone Karst Formations, Halong Bay, Vietnam

          For about $50 I joined a tour with a great group of folks from all over the world.  I was picked up right in front of the Hoa Binh Hotel at 8:30 AM and delivered back there 12 hours later.  The package included a wonderful tour of the bay, lunch on the boat, a visit to a floating fishing village, a ride on the bamboo boats taking us through a cave into an open lagoon and a visit to the magnificent Thien Cung Cave.  Halong Bay, Vietnam was definitely one of the highlights of my sojourn through Southeast Asia and you won’t want to miss it while you’re in this part of the world.

John Taking a Break, Halong Bay, Vietnam

John Taking a Break, Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

 

Hanoi, Vietnam

Capital City of Vietnam

          Whatever preconceived notions you may have about Hanoi, you are bound to be both surprised and delighted by the capital city of Vietnam.  With numerous lakes, temples and historic sites to explore, adventurous travelers will find plenty here to keep them occupied for several days.  French and Vietnamese cuisine abound and the reasonable price of dining in Hanoi is certain to please the value minded traveler.  While experiencing this beautiful city with all four senses, you will also have an opportunity to meet a few of the more than six million friendly inhabitants who will go out of their way to help you.  And let’s not forget that Hanoi is the gateway to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you will not want to miss during your visit to Vietnam.

The Huc Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Huc Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoan Kiem Lake

          My walking tour of Hanoi began after a wonderful breakfast at the Hoa Binh Hotel where I was staying.  Hoan Kiem Lake or Sword Lake is just a short walk from the hotel near the historic Old Quarter.  The lake is one of the major attractions in Hanoi and a great place to mingle with the locals.

The Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

  The Hanoi Hilton

          The Hanoi Railway Station is also close to the hotel and just a few blocks from there is the infamous Hoa Lo Prison or Hanoi Hilton.  Built by the French in the 1880s, the prison name translates roughly to ‘Hell’s hole’.  For about $1 you can tour the prison complex and see where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War.

The Hanoi Hilton or Hoa Lo Prison

The Hanoi Hilton or Hoa Lo Prison

The Presidential Palace

          A bit farther west you will come to a clustering of important sites, including the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the B-52 crash site.  Built for the French Governor-General of Indochina, the Presidential Palace typifies European architecture of the early 1900s.  When Vietnam achieved its independence from France in 1954, Ho Chi Minh lived in a simple stilt house on the grounds, rather than moving into the nearby palace.

The Presidential Palace of Vietnam in Hanoi

The Presidential Palace of Vietnam in Hanoi

The Ho Chi MinhMausoleum

          Adjacent to the Presidential Palace is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is set back on a huge open area known as Ba Dinh Square.  The square is reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but is nearly deserted in comparison.  The structure of the tomb is based on Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, but much larger.  It is only open for visitors from 8 to 11 AM a few days a week.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam

Throngs of Visitors Crowd into Ba Dinh Square for a Glimpse of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The One Pillar Pagoda

          In the same vicinity as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum you will find the One Pillar Pagoda.  This Buddhist temple built in 1049 is one of the most frequently visitied sites in Hanoi.  Symbolizing a lotus blossom rising from a muddy pond, this temple is a perfect place for reflection and peaceful meditation.

The One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam

The One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi

The B-52 Crash Site

          In 1972, towards the end of the Vietnam War, an American B-52 bomber was shot down over Hanoi.  It crashed into Hun Tiep Lake, where it has remained for more than 40 years.  The wreckage can still be seen protruding from a small moss covered pond in the midst of the urban area west of Ba Dinh Square.  Be prepared for a difficult time locating this iconic symbol of the war, but then wandering through the back alleys and asking the locals for directions is all part of the experience…and getting a glimpse of the historic sites, beautiful scenery and friendly people of Hanoi, Vietnam is a delightful experience that should be on every traveler’s bucket list.

B-52 Crash Site in Hun Tiep Lake, Hanoi

B-52 Crash Site in Hun Tiep Lake, Hanoi

 

Hanoi Airport Shuffle

Bus and Taxi Passengers Beware

          Arranging the 45 minute ride from the Hanoi International Airport into the city looked at first like it would be a slam dunk, but turned out to be the only negative experience on my entire visit to this beautiful country.  After a short, pleasant flight from Luang Prabang, Laos I landed around 5 PM at the modern Hanoi Noi Bai Airport.  I quickly cleared customs with my prearranged visa and was able to change some money before making my way outside where several buses were waiting to take visitors into town for a small fee.  The bus I selected had several people already on board and the driver indicated he would be leaving momentarily.  After waiting about twenty minutes we realized that he was out looking for more passengers and probably wouldn’t be leaving until he filled the bus.  Four of us decided to share a cab instead and were soon heading into the city for a predetermined fee of $6 each.

Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport

Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport

Taxi Shenanigans

          I had decided to try the Hoa Binh Hotel based on a good review from Frommer’s Southeast Asia guide book and told the driver that was where I wanted to be dropped off.  Everything was going fine as we let the first and second passengers off at their hotels…and then came my turn.  The driver suddenly demanded quite a bit more money than we had agreed upon and when I protested he threatened to call the police, taking out his cell phone to make his point.  I stood my ground and handed him six dollars, all the while wondering if I would end up staying at the Hanoi Hilton that night, instead.  He backed off when I said we would have the concierge at the hotel help us resolve the situation.  The remaining passenger was a young lady who looked nervous about continuing on alone with this driver and I suggested that she get out, pay him off and get another taxi…which she did.  I stayed with her until the disagreeable cab driver was gone and she was safely ensconced in another taxi.  Lesson learned…in Hanoi, best stick to the taxi companies recommended in your guide book and beware of the shenanigans some of the less scrupulous drivers might try to pull.

Friendly Boys in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Friendly People of Vietnam…Boys in Hanoi

Friendly People, Beautiful Places

          As luck would have it, there was a nice room available for me at the Hoa Binh Hotel for $65 a night with breakfast, so I booked it for two nights.  It was an elegant, historic old hotel in a perfect location near the train station and within walking distance of many of the major sights.  By now it was nearly 7 PM, but the hotel reception was still able to book me a seat on a tour to Halong Bay for the next day.  Future postings will feature a full report on my visit to this World Heritage Site, as well as a detailed review of the Hoa Binh Hotel.  After a rocky introduction to Vietnam, the rest of my time in this wonderful country was filled with friendly people and beautiful places.  Be sure to join me on my journey from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the South with a stop at Hoi An right in the middle.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Beautiful Places of Vietnam…Halong Bay

Intro to Indochina

Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia

          Having made my way up the Malay Peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok, it was now time to continue my journey into uncharted territory.  Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had long been on my bucket list of must-see destinations, but it was with some trepidation that I contemplated the logistics of traveling through the rugged countryside, crossing multiple borders into communist countries, and arranging suitable transportation and lodging, all the while grappling with several different languages.  As I was soon to discover, my concerns were all for naught.  I was able to easily navigate my way through some of the most beautiful country on earth, inhabited by some of the friendliest folks I have ever encountered in my travels throughout the world.  In upcoming articles we’ll visit the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos; Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon in Vietnam; and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia.  We’ll also explore two fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ha Long Bay and Angkor Wat.

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

History and Culture

          Historically, Indochina refers to the three countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on the Southeast Asian peninsula.  This region was known as French Indochina during the period when these countries were colonies of France from about 1884 to 1954.  The Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia were granted independence from France in 1949, but Vietnam would have a much longer journey to becoming the country it is today.  The Indochina War was largely a conflict between France and the Viet Minh in the north of Vietnam and began in 1946 shortly after the end of World War II.  It ended in 1954 with the partition of Vietnam into North and South.  Enter the Americans one year later and the rest, as they say, is history!  While the peoples of Indochina are quite separate from those of both India and China, the name Indochina can be attributed to the location of this region between these two larger countries.  While each of the three countries comprising today’s Indochina is ethnically diverse, the Khmers can be identified as the majority in Cambodia and the Kinh (Viet) in Vietnam.  Laos, on the other hand, is a much more diverse conglomeration of many tribes and languages.

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Indochina Itinerary

          The major sights of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia can easily be covered by taking a circular route beginning and ending in the gateway city of Bangkok, Thailand.  I traveled in a clockwise direction, starting with the overnight train ride from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos.  What I thought would be a complicated border crossing over the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai into Laos turned out to be quite simple and went exactly according to how it was described in The Man in Seat 61.  You can purchase a visa on arrival for Laos there for $35.  After an overnight in Vientiane, I took the 11 hour bus ride through the beautiful northern hill country of Laos to the incredibly charming UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River.   To save time and avoid the long, arduous bus ride over the mountains to Hanoi, I took the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi the following day on Lao Airlines for $150.  Arriving in Vietnam by plane also enables travelers to purchase a visa on arrival rather than applying for a visa in advance which is required at land border crossings.  After two nights in Hanoi and a day trip to Ha Long Bay I took the overnight train to the ancient city of Hoi An via Da Nang for $45.  Again to save time, I took the one hour flight the following day from Da Nang to Saigon on Vietnam Airlines.  After a one day visit to Saigon I took a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $20 and was able to purchase a visa on arrival at the border for $25.  The following day I took the five hour bus ride to Siem Reap for $12.00.  After two days in Siem Reap with ample time to explore Ankor Wat, I completed the final leg of my circuitous journey by taking the nine and a half hour bus ride back to Bangkok for another $12.  Hopefully, these details will be helpful for those planning an independent sojourn through Indochina.

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

  Bargain Hunter’s Paradise

          Hurry!  These prices won’t last!  At the risk of sounding like the proverbial used car salesman, I can’t stress enough that the price for everything from hotels to restaurants to transportation and shopping are incredibly low throughout Indochina, making it a true bargain hunter’s paradise.  It’s no wonder that frugal students and backpackers flock to this region every year to take advantage of the great deals.  Imagine a wonderful hotel with a pool and a fabulous breakfast for $50 or a delightful meal in a French restaurant for $7.  Or how ‘bout a comfortable minibus ride from Cambodia to Thailand for $12 or a souvenir tee shirt for $1.  As word gets out, prices are sure to go up, so if you are thinking of a trip to Indochina, now might be the time.  In future articles we will explore this region in greater detail, so be sure to check back with us here at Blue Orb Travel for some great information on what to see and where to stay during your visit.

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam