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Our (late) Vietnam Trip Report
5th May, 2009
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First of all, our apologies for the delays in posting our trip report. My girlfriend and I came back from Vietnam a couple weeks ago, were quite hesitant to write this report but think it’s important for us to share with you all when the memories are still fresh.
Halong Bay: We were booked one night aboard the Pinta Gold on the strength of the reviews on here and like countless others weren’t disappointed. We transferred a 30% deposit by Western Union before we left home and paid the rest at Columbus’ office in Hanoi . From the moment we arrived at the office until we boarded the boat, we felt like a celebrity, each member of the staff was extremely outgoing, friendly and eager to please.
As soon as we arrived at the wharf, we were quickly taken to the tender that transferred us to the Pinta Gold. We were completely blown away by the wooden paneled boat which was clean, new and it felt like we were the very first guests to board the boat even though, as we said above, we knew that numerous others had taken it before us.
We were assigned to a room on the upper deck, next to the restaurant and a few steps to the sun deck. It didn’t concern us as to how big the room is or what it looks like, but it was functional, spotlessly clean and beautifully decorated. The A/C ran very well both days and we didn’t smell any smoke (which my girlfriend is sensitive to). The bed was super comfy and the view from the room was awesome. The bathroom wasn’t the largest but was very comfortable and the closet was ideal for the bags.
The food was generous and decent. The staff were uniformed, polite and were very accommodating and my girlfriend had no trouble with her strict vegetarian diet. The service was personal and welcoming.
One of our favorite moments was in the evening when we grabbed a drink in the restaurant, walked up to the deck and lazed there until late at night which was breezily cool even though it was extremely hot in the daytime.
The group was considered to be very lucky that day as the tides were up, so we were able to kayak to the lagoons which were a long way from where we spent the night. It was quite tiring getting through the tunnels and actually some of the other travelers in the group got stranded but managed to get through.
As a whole, Halong bay is a true wonder of the world and the trip was a very nice experience.
Sapa : We were back to Hanoi at around 4:45pm and dropped off at Hong Ngoc hotel which was arranged by Aurora Travel. The hotel staff went out of their way keeping the bags since we didn’t want to take it all to Sapa, offering a big map of Hanoi and several tips on Sapa which were useful. To be honest, the girlfriend and I were totally surprised by the service which, admittedly, exceeded our expectations (we were welcomed as if we’d stayed there before, but we didn’t until we came back from Sapa).
Then we headed out the old streets, had dinner at the Green Tangerine restaurant in Hang Be Street which is recommended by our guidebook. The food and service were excellent but I’d personally recommend this restaurant to anyone traveling on the cheap wishing to splurge a bit. Then we quickly bought snacks and beers that could feed an army on the night train. Back to the hotel at 7pm or so and waited for our guide.
We were due to be picked up at 7:15pm but the guide (Son) was a bit late which didn’t bother us at all since, from experience, we were fully aware that the local traffic was something else we could never say for sure. All the streets seemed to be cramped with cars, mopeds and bicycles. Our personal opinion was that there was no rule of driving here and as a result, crossing the streets became a huge headache.
We arrived at the station just in time for check-in which was great. Actually Aurora had the option of providing a local guide who’d meet us once we arrived in Sapa. But, we asked them to arrange a guide that would accompany us all the way and paid just a token amount for that which was lovely since Son not only grasped a good grip on the area but also had an excellent sense of humor and spoke perfect English.
The train arrived at Lao Cai station very early in the morning and we found it really hard to get our eyes open. Once got off the train, we were transferred to a polished 7 seater car which was shiny and comfortable. As we arrived on a Sunday morning, we drove straight to the Bac Ha market which was well worth every of our efforts and the weather was of its finest that day. For your information, approximately 86% of the country’s population is ethnically Viet, the rest are minorities. The most obvious minorities are usually the ones that reside in the northern hills because they’ve maintained most traditional dress and customs. In Sapa we saw many Dzao, notable for shaving the front of their head and winding the long hair in the back into a red sort of turban-kerchief. Sapa was also home to the Black H'mong people, who have cylindrical hats and use massive amounts of indigo dye, so they’ve dyed hands as well. At the market there were mostly Flower H'mong who dressed in loads of really bright colors. There were also Dzao (I think) with a different kind of headdress, and a smattering of White H'mong. There are 5 different categories/colors of H'mong, but there are many more tribes, and each is a little different from the others.
So we walked around the market, full of the usual goods and also boasting a large amount of Flower H'mong clothing for sale. I was quite delighted when I found this, but bought almost nothing since they were offered at incredibly varying prices. Along the way I waved at people, trying to be as friendly as possible and hoping that someone would have the courage to let me take a picture. I waved at two little girls who were very curious about the foreigner. They were really cute and spoke pretty good English. I then offered to let them take a picture. The littlest one was too shy, and she shortly disappeared, but the other hesitantly took the camera and snapped a photo. We were delighted by the outcome after all.
We were taken back to Sapa in the afternoon for check-in at the Chau Long Sapa hotel which was good in general. We got a superior room in the New Wing which was large, bed was comfortable. What made the hotel and the room stand out to me was the balcony that overlooked the breathtaking Sapa valley. The night’s sleep was uninterrupted and it was a battle just to open our eyes and greet a new day.
As I looked out of the windows, the sun was shining. The clouds weren’t in the sky but were swimming in the valley which was a perfect sight. We’d breakfast in the hotel restaurant which was pretty good and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. Then we made our way to start a day of trekking to a few hill tribe villages which was great fun. It’s the days in Sapa that we really felt far from home which was lovely. The local folks were friendly. Houses were incredibly tiny and I just thought there was little sign that someone had ever lived in this space which obviously lacked all modern conveniences, even the very basic items that turned a location into home.
Back on the train, we grabbed hot tea, read a little and snapped several shots when things came into view. Frankly it was easier to get lost in a book since the lines had blurred. The real world seemed imaginary and the fiction easier to escape into. What we just experienced in Sapa was way different from that we’d anticipated. When I keenly remember a town, the first thing it comes to mind may be the stunning scenery, a great trek, an incredible meal, a perfect temperature and so on. Sapa had it all and we were very happy we’d visited this wonderful place.
Hue : We flew to Hue this morning on Vietnam Airlines. The flight felt nicer than all of the German domestic carriers and many international flights we'd been on. The flight attendants were friendly and we met some German fellows which were fantastic.
Before leaving home, we’d decided to hop on and off a bus at several places along the way to Hue from Hanoi, but after reading several of the recent stories in which local buses were described as just a rolling prison cell and the beds were no bigger than a coffin, we changed our mind and the flight was great.
We stayed at the Saigon Morin Hotel, arranged by Aurora Travel and got a Junior Suite which was a good deal (175$ per night, breakfast and taxes included). The room was spiffy, had a balcony that looked over the downtown area. The A/C worked very well which was wonderful because we were traveling in the roasting heat of the summer months. This hotel resembled us of the Sofitel Metropole where we had a high tea break while in Hanoi. The old French style was captivating, fruit baskets, chocolate and a poem note on the side table were a wonderful touch. The outdoor restaurant and bar were fascinating; the pool was lovely and of a comfortable size and the ambiance in whole was cozy and homely.
We lunched in the hotel restaurant, after a shower and a bit of sleep, and then headed for a half day tour. Son met us at the hotel with 2 cyclos which the girlfriend and I shared one and Son had the other to himself. After we’d settled in, Son took us around in a few minutes for a good orientation and told us what we were going to visit that afternoon, and then off we went.
The traffic… We’re always impressed by the local traffic wherever we go abroad and had the impression that the traffic here was way less busy than that in Hanoi which was amazing. Son was brilliant by explaining the major differences between the way of living of the local residents and those in other parts of the country, their accents, customs and many other things we could hardly find in any guidebooks. I just thought it must have been very difficult for one to grasp a good understanding of the area without a knowledgeable guide.
The city’s located less than 50 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (the former border between North and South). This strategic location cursed the city with heavy fighting during the war. During the New Year of 1968, the city was overtaken for three weeks by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces that proceeded to massacre 'uncooperative elements" of Hue's population. Two weeks of heavy American bombings which were followed by intensive combat finally forced the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces to retreat. Besides the tens of thousands of civilian casualties, the conflict laid waste to most of the city and its historic structures. Many other areas of American control that experienced heavy fighting during the war are located near Hue, including the Khe Sanh Airbase and the Con Thien Firebase. Happily, Hue today is a vibrant and friendly town.
The citadel housed the royal palaces, complete with official reception rooms, queen's residence, queen's mother's residence, king's mother's residence, concubine housing, opera theatre, royal library, day rooms, ponds, lakes, covered walkways and so on. It must have been absolutely beautiful when in use - all gold and red paint. We saw the magnificent clothing worn by the Emperors, hand embroidered silk robes, with intricate designs. Quite a few of the royal buildings are still magnificent but some were damaged during the American war in 1968. There are many gates which are wonderful, with inlaid ceramics in bright colors, featuring the dragon and phoenix. I kept imagining how splendid this must have been, with the royal household present in their fine robes, surrounded by tranquil ponds, peaceful and secluded gardens, mandarins and court attendants doting on the emperor, all the majesty of court life.
By the south gate is a flagpole called Flag Tower which according to Son is the tallest flagpole of Vietnam. It was first erected in 1809, was almost destroyed in 1947 and re-erected in 1949. The tower rises 37 meter high upon three tiers that represent the natural order of earth, human beings and death.
We wandered about the citadel for the rest of the afternoon, seeing the remains and keenly listening to Son’s awesome commentaries at every spot we stopped by. The touring was finished at around 5:30pm and it was a very special experience lazing on a cyclo, seeing the city life when the streets were lit up and schoolgirls cycling home in their traditional long dresses.
Back to the hotel at about 6pm and said goodbye to Son, we’d a bath, put our most beautiful costumes on and headed out to Ancient Hue restaurant for dinner after Son’s recommendation which didn’t disappoint us at all. The staff were nice and the food was seriously yummy with sensational presentation and flavors. The ice cream is to die for which the girlfriend raved about. The restaurant’s set in impressively lush gardens and traditional buildings.
The next morning, we were picked up early for a full day to the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ as it’s known). Although the road wasn’t that good and the traffic was something else, the trip out there was pleasant and Son did a great job of describing the peculiarities of driving in Vietnam, elaborating the current living conditions and income of the people living in the places we were going to visit, their customs and festivals, etc. The drive was almost 2 hours but by the time we arrived we’d already got acquainted and looked forward to the trip.
Our first stop was to the Hien Luong Bridge which was first built by French sappers in 1950 and was selected as a temporary line of demarcation between the North and the South under the Geneva Agreement on Vietnam signed in 1954. Before the Bridge was built, the only way to transport goods and people across the river was by boat. However, not too long after the bridge was built, Vietnamese people could not cross the river anymore without a very special permission from both sides. Now it’s a historic landmark and of course a great tourist attraction.
Next up, we were taken to Vinh Moc tunnels which were interesting and far less claustrophobic than the Cu Chi tunnels. There were over 200 miles of tunnel networks some 23 meters down all over Vietnam. Seeing the tunnels as well as listening to Son’s description of the war gives a real sense of how difficult it must have been to live in the hot, damp, suffocating tunnels for so many years. There were even hospitals, weapons manufacture areas and birth chambers underground. We spent several hours there as it was fascinating and the museum had lots of photos of life in the tunnels including a number of babies who were born in the tunnels complete with rattan cribs. The exits were on to Cua Tung Beach, designed so that sea breezes filled the tunnels with fresh air. We then jumped into the car to see the Rockpile. It was a huge hill where the US Army placed a watch and fire mission as it had a commanding view of the surrounding area.
Continuing on the tour, we drove over to a section of the Ho Chi Minh trails which showed just how resourceful the Vietnamese were in constructing a two-lane tarmac highway complete with nearby Road Bridge and Khe Sanh Combat Base which was the site of a controversial siege during one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Standing here now though is a relatively serene picture of green hills and fields which the only way you would know anything took place is by the few pieces of American military equipment put on display and a small museum full of fairly interesting photographs with captions such as "Americans running away in terror.", but the best read was in the visitor’s book since the comments from both Vietnam Vets and some passionate American tourists were saddening and enlightening.
The trip ended with a visit to the village of the Ninh Kieu ethnic minority group which was a great finale. Along the way, most people said "hello" and looked out of their shacks to see what was going on. Kids were everywhere again (like in Sapa), some of them kept asking for ‘money, money’. The girlfriend pulled out some cash but didn’t seem to have enough for all of them. These were the poor of the poor however our guide assured us they get 3 meals a day! In summary, if you’ve an interest in history and the war, the tour is worthwhile as it does put places heard about or read about in perspective. Frankly it was the right thing we were looking for, since we’re history buffs, and Son’s profound knowledge just hit the spot.
Central Highlands: Having had a taste of beach and city life, we decided to head up into the central highlands and the coffee capital of Vietnam which aren’t as high as you might expect. Buon Ma Thuot was a surprisingly large and cosmopolitan town where we just stayed one night and found it comfortable and adequate. We were met on arrival by a lovely guide called Mr. Thu who, after greeting us in good English, took us to the Bach Ma hotel for check in. The hotel’s located in the tranquil part of Buon Ma Thuot which was a real treat. The reception area is quite large with a coffee table, bench and chair. Opposite is a coffee shop where you can try some of the most wonderful coffee which is locally grown as well as a bar. We stayed in a room on the 3rd floor with a small balcony overlooking the street. The room was spacious and modestly decorated, bed was comfortable, the air-conditioning worked well and the bathroom was clean with a shower-in-bath set up.
Thu took us around the countryside for the afternoon. We went with him to the nearby national park where he pointed out all the flora and fauna with expertise demonstrating how you can live off the forest. We saw loofahs and how cashew nuts grow - only one nut to each fruit. We ate a fruit that acts like a steroid and saw a herb that you can use for contraception. He also showed us how to get oil from sandalwood and explode tree sap! Finally we saw some domesticated elephants, beautiful but quite sad. Next up, we drove to Lak Lake which was quite pretty and stopped to see the sights on the way. We saw pepper growing and being dried, I always thought it would be seeds in a pod but it looks a bit like grapes on a stalk, coffee plantations with little Robusto shrubs and rubber trees - whole forests planted in lines and cut like a helter-skelter everyday so that the rubber drips down into a pot at the bottom. We also saw bricks being made by hand - hot and dirty work. It’s always good to see the countryside and the local farmers doing there own thing compared to the city where a lot of it has changed to suit the many tourists’ needs. The roads aren’t the best here in Vietnam and getting to the falls consisted of going down one of the local dirt roads which was in poor condition but good fun.
Dray Sap, Dray Nur and Gia Long Waterfalls
We were initially thrilled with the sight of such beautiful waterfalls, a curving semi-circular line perhaps a full hundred meters from one side to the other and gushing white water falling vertically into the sublime green plunge pool below. The sight must be incredible in the rainy season to see the waterfalls in full glory.
Dray Sap, Dray Nur and Gia Long waterfalls are all in the same lush green national park which only requires one ticket for all. The park redeemed itself as the Dray Nur waterfall, whilst not as impressive as Dray Sap was completely free of fishing lines and hence perfect for cooling off during the mid-day heat. The sheer drop looked like it may be possible to jump from as it was perhaps about 60ft high, however since none of the locals were doing this, we decided not to give it a try. It was however a pleasant place to spend a few hours relaxing and swimming.
Then we took a 5km ride through the most stunning of countryside to the final waterfalls of the national park. They were absolutely the most beautiful of the many sights we’d seen in Vietnam. They weren’t the biggest or the most popular, but for us they were special because at one point, a fast flowing yet slightly sloped waterfall converged with two other steeper and larger waterfalls, both of which were cascading out from the thickly overgrown jungle to form a sight which was just breathtaking. We can understand why they aren’t as popular in the sense that they’re difficult to get to, and even when you arrive by road, you have to trek through the jungle and down some very steep paths to reach the bottom. At the bottom, you’re still not in the middle of it, and have to climb across the rocks to reach the water and you can’t really swim in the plunge pool because the water flows far too fast - altogether this would probably be a big letdown for lots of visitors, but we loved this waterfall for just how natural it was and how the surrounding landscape hadn’t been altered for human or tourist needs. Such a beautiful setting and well worth a visit.
We ended the day with some fantastic food which we’d been told about. We’d describe them as spring roll type things, except you make them by yourself (sorry I forget the name). If you ask for this dish, they’ll bring you a whole selection of vegetables and meat if you want, and give you a selection of dipping sauces. You also get some sheets of rice paper and together you make your own spring rolls. Absolutely delicious food! A great end to a great day!
The town itself is fairly large and situated on a large river which is excellent to watch the sunset from. Although all in sum the town isn’t really much to note, it’s a more authentic view of Vietnam that’s what we were looking for. The town’s mainly noted only for its well preserved wooden French colonial church, which is very beautiful, though it looks a bit out of place, and an orphanage which is right behind the church. The children housed here are a mix of the local ethnic minorities. Many of the local hill tribes are quite far from civilization and lead their lives for the most part without any medical or social assistance. If a mother dies in childbirth, the baby will be buried alive with her. Several orphanages were built to give them a better option. For some of the more remote hill tribes, they still follow their old traditions. It's really sad seeing all the kids without families but they seemed well cared for and the ladies working there were really kind.
We took a trek in the afternoon to some of the ethnic minority villages. In every village you’ll see a so called ‘Rong house’, which is the center of the village. The roof can be up to 19m high. The richer the village is, the higher the roof will be. The building is built on stilts. This was usually because of wild animals, including tigers, who threatened people’s life here. The house is used as courthouse and for festivals. We were invited to a tea break with a local man who is one of Thu’s friends in his house. It was also built on stilts with a rattan floor and no furniture in it. An old woman was sitting at an open fire with a soup pot. Some hammocks were hanging on the sides. We then passed a lake and several other houses on stilts, where families welcomed us with an open smile. They live with their pigs and chicken, working on their rice fields. Everything we saw near their houses was built of natural materials. No plastic, no metal. On our way back we took a small boat passing dense bamboo vegetation and lovely rice fields.
To speak briefly, the trip was very rewarding and we got to see ‘real’ Vietnam, which is still much less known to tourists and is something we’re proud of. The Central Highlands tour was perhaps the most amazing part that we’d booked with Aurora Travel. Our visas on arrival were perfectly arranged, hotels, transfers and tours were well organized and the guides could not be better. We’d confidently recommend the company to everyone considering a reliable tour operator in Vietnam.
#1 Posted: 15/12/2009 - 17:34
3rd February, 2010
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Thanks for a wonderful report!
#2 Posted: 5/2/2010 - 11:53
23rd September, 2010
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Gratz, good review!
#3 Posted: 23/9/2010 - 07:55
17th September, 2010
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Great report. Mind me asking how much was the Pinta Gold boat trip? Sounds wonderful!
#4 Posted: 23/9/2010 - 08:16
" We’d describe them as spring roll type things, except you make them by yourself (sorry I forget the name). "
The above dish you described seem like Goi? Cuo^n' or Spring roll, or at-least that's how us oversea Vietnamese often refer to it. Besides the fresh vegetables and herbs, the proteins ingredients are already boiled/steam.
You were most likely served "Family style", and this is the most authentic/traditional way of eating Spring roll the Vietnamese way. You "build your own" Spring roll by selecting the ingredients of choices (various vegetables, herbs, boiled pork or prawn). This is a perfect summer dish where all the fresh vegetables and herbs will cool you down a bit in such humid weather in region like SE Asia.
Another similar dish to the above spring roll, often serve in the colder months or season where the difference lies in the stock (fondue style). We call it Bò Nhúng Da^m' in Vietnamese, and a direct translation would be: Sliced steak Dip in Sweet & Sour Broth - Fondue style. All proteins are served un-cook. Diner would cook the proteins (usually thinly sliced steak, assorted seafood) in a sweet & sour broth, fondue style. You would dress the rice sheet with herbs/vegetable of choices, then layer the cooked proteins from dipping into the sweet and sour broth on top of the veggie and wrap the roll.
#5 Posted: 13/1/2011 - 16:47
18th January, 2011
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Great trip, i think you have enjoyed too much.
#6 Posted: 19/1/2011 - 15:15
6th June, 2009
"To speak briefly, the trip was very rewarding and we got to see ‘real’ Vietnam, which is still much less known to tourists and is something we’re proud of."
I have to admit, I don't get this. I have lived in the "real" Thailand for almost four years, and it's not something I am proud of. I do it because I enjoy it. It doesn't make me in any way a better person that someone who stayed in Newton Mass (where I grew up). A tourist who visits the "real Vietnam" isn't any better than a tourist who kicks it on the beach. You are both going someplace to engage in things you enjoy.
It's a great trip report and I'm glad you had a good time - that's why people go on vacation. But I don't get the "we're proud" of part.
#7 Posted: 3/2/2011 - 12:17
Glad to hear about your trip. Really well presented trip report with lovely highlights.
#8 Posted: 4/2/2011 - 19:36
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