Itinerary: Hanoi – Sapa – Halong Bay – Hué – Hoi An – Saigon – Mekong Delta
It’s a cold, foggy January morning when I leave from home for a three week journey inthe socialist republic of Vietnam (Viet Nam, as it is spelled by the Vietnamese themselves). I have a stopover in Hong Kong, where I arrive after an eleven hour flight. Due to the eight hour time difference it is 7 a.m. in Hong Kong and since I have about ten hours to kill before my flight to Hanoi departs, I spend a day in this metropolis. Kind of a bonus to my Vietnam trip. (I made a separate travelogue of my day in Hong Kong.)
My flight to Hanoi leaves at 6 p.m. and only takes about an hour. At the Hanoi airport I run into a Vietnamese man holding a sheet of paper with my name on it. I just assume he’s my guy and go with him. In half an hour we drive to Hanoi. As was to be expected, traffic is a mess and everybody is constantly honking. I’m staying at a guesthouse in a small side street off a side street off the main road. After I get there, the fact that I skipped a night and already spend the day in Hong Kong is starting to take its toll. So I call it a day early, time to get some sleep.
The guesthouse is located about three kilometers from the city center. On my way there, walking down Thanh Nien Street along West Lake, I come by the Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam. The original pagoda was built here in 1639, the current one dates from 1842. Just beyond the lake, at a busy intersection, is the small walled Quan Thanh temple. In case you don’t know: a pagoda is a place where religious Vietnamese people go to make sacrifices or pray to a certain god. Temples, on the other hand, serve to worship certain individuals, such as Confucius or an important warlord.
The first thing you notice when you walk in the streets of Hanoi is the constant honking of cars, mopeds and scooters. Seriousy, constanty. Apparently everyone here thinks it’s necessary to constantly warn each other that they are coming. Probably not an unnecessary luxury in the busy and chaotic traffic. The second thing that stands out is the huge amount of mopeds and scooters. Unlike cars, a moped or scooter is affordable for many Vietnamese and is also an ideal means of transport in the city.
The amount of mopeds and scooters around here does mean that crossing the road as a pedestrian does require some courage. We Dutchies are used to waiting until a suitable moment to cross the road arrives. As every Dutch child knows: only cross the road if there is no traffic coming. But here in Vietnam, waiting until there is no traffic for a while is impossible. You will be waiting forever. Risking your life by running really fast across the street is not advisable either. Little chance that you will live to tell. So, then what? Well, in Vietnam, you cross the road by walking slowly between the traffic from one side to the other, while the mopeds, scooters (and bicycles and cyclos and whatever else is driving around here) shoot past you in front and behind you. The first time you feel like you’re risking your life in an irresponsible way, but really, 99 times out of a 100 you’ll be fine. Just don’t go too fast and don’t make unexpected movements!
Ba Dinh Square is a large, empty square, part asphalt and part lawn, with an imposing anthracite marble building on the west side. This is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese socialist party and former president. Two guards dressed in spotless white uniforms stand in front of the mausoleum. Behind the mausoleum is the One Pillar Pagoda, a small wooden Pagoda on a concrete column in a pond. The shape of the pagoda is intended as a lotus flower (symbol of purity and goodness) that rises above the ‘sea of worries’ (a.k.a. the pond). The original pagoda was built in 1049, but before the French left Vietnam, they destroyed the old pagoda. It was rebuilt in 1954.
It’s only a few blocks before I get to the Temple of Literature. In 1070, Emperor Ly Thanh Tong founded the first Vietnamese university here, dedicated to Confucius. After an impressive gate you reach five pavilions with gardens. In the second pavilion is a large square pond flanked by colonnades with monuments to 82 ‘extraordinary scholars’ of the university. The last pavilion is the entrance to the temple itself. Here is a large statue of Confucius, flanked by four servants.
After lunch I go and look for the Hoa Lo prison. This prison, of which only a small part has survived, is best known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, the nickname given to the prison by American POWs during the Vietnam War (which is known in Vietnam as the American War). Former US Senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain was imprisoned in Hoa Lo. These days the prison is a museum. The story told here, however, is (except for the last part) not that of the American prisoners of war. The museum is about how the French built Hoa Lo in 1896 to imprison Vietnamese who resisted the colonial rulers. The comments in the museum are not entirely unbiased: they talk about the French oppression, the torture practices and the courageous Vietnamese prisoners. The Vietnam War is described here as “the United States’ war of sabotage against the North”.
From Hoa Lo I walk down the busy streets in the direction of the Old Quarter. I’m on my way to Hoan Kien Lake, a large pond in the midst of the city. It’s a very busy place with lots of tourists. At the lake is an island, connected to the shore by a red arch bridge, and on the island is the Ngoc Son temple. It is the most visited temple in Hanoi, but personally I like the Temple of Literature better.
In addition to many shops, there’s also a water puppet theatre located near Hoan Kien Lake. This traditional form of theater comes from North Vietnam and performances are still held daily, mainly for tourists. I get a ticket for the 8 p.m. show and go for dinner first. The show lasts an hour and a half and is quite entertaining. A kind of puppets move through the water, accompanied by live music and singing. The historical stories that are told are not really understandable for foreigners, but it is fun to see.
After the show I take a taxi back to the guest house. I was already warned that some taxi drivers are trying to rip off foreign visitors. This one is trying to make me pay 700,000 dong, which is a zero too much. I object and make it clear that 50,000 dong is really enough for this ride. The taxi driver is not amused, but he has no choice but to deal with the fact that I’m more streetwise then he was hoping for.
The next morning, rain is pooring down. And it will continue to do so all morning. I don’t feel like getting wet and I spend the morning reading my travel guide. Vietnam has a long history of foreign domination. By the Camodians, by the Chinese and in the last century by the French and the Americans. For the Vietnamese, the latter were ‘just’ the last in a long line of rulers. For them it was therefore only a matter of time before these rulers would also be defeated. Although the war is a thing of the past and does not really play a role anymore today, differences between the north and the south remain in Vietnam.
The north has a long history under communist rule, while the south has long been under western colonial rule. But that is mainly something only the older generations remember. The young people grow up in a united Vietnam, in an age of mobile phones and the Internet. Today, Vietnam is a somewhat strange mix of a socialist one-party state, with no free media, but with a free market economy. The spirit of trade is in the Vietnamese genes. Thanks to this commercial spirit, Vietnam has flourished in recent years. It is now the second rice exporter in the world (after Thailand) and tourism is on the rise.
After lunch, the rain has turned into a gentle drizzle. I take the risk and hail a taxi off the main road to take me to the Old Quarter. This time the taxi ride costs me only 35,000 dong (converted 1.40 euros). I get dropped off at Hoan Kien Lake and walk into the old part of town. Whichever street you walk into, there are small shops everywhere, often no wider than a roller shutter or double door, because the buildings here are narrow. This is the result of the fact that you used to pay tax in proportion to the width of the facade. Like in many Asian countries, similar shops are located on the same street: so there’s a street with only shoe shops, a street where only herbs and spices are sold and so on. In another street I come across a traditional market. Here the locals buy their vegetables, fish and flowers. The fish doesn’t get fresher than here: the bass, shrimps and lobsters are still alive in shallow tanks. Hence the term ‘wet market’.
Really funny is that as soon as it strats to rain a bit harder, all of a sudden saleswomen pop up from nowhere offering umbrellas and ponchos. The rain gives everything a somewhat depressed look and all those people in ponchos looks a bit weird, but otherwise it is very nice to walk about the Old Quarter. And despite it being wet, it is a pleasant 23 degrees.
After a visit to the Bac Ma temple (a small temple where it is quite a mess), I walk down Ma May street, where I choose Restaurant 69 to have dinner (highly recommended!). After taking a taxi back to the gueasthouse, I have some time to kill until. At a 7:45 p.m. I am taken to the train station to take the night train to Lao Cai. I have been given a voucher that I have to exchange for a train ticket, I just have no idea where to go. In no time a man notices me and asks me to wait. Two minutes later he returns with my train ticket and takes me to the already waiting train. How nice!
I have been assigned bed number 8 in room 2 of carriage 4. This is in a four person couchette that I share with an Australian mother and her two adult daughters. They are nice travel companions with whom I chat for a while before we get ready for the night. The train has already left and, a bit shaking, we drive towards the far north of Vietnam. Quite an adventure, alone in an unknown country with unknown people in a night train on the way to an unknown destination. But so far so good.
I sleep reasonably well on the train, although I do wake up a few times during the night. We are awakened very early by a voice in the hallway that cheerfully shouts: “Good morning, coffee!” Just after 5:30 a.m. we arrive at Lao Cai train station, only a few kilometers from the border with China. Most people on the train are tourists on their way to Sapa and outside the station a large group of Vietnamese is waiting for them. There’s also someone with my name on a sheet of paper. With about ten others I am taken to Sapa by minibus. It’s still dark, but all the hairpin bends clearly indicate that we are in the mountains. An hour later we arrive in Sapa. Women of the Black H’mong, one of the local hill tribes, immediately come running towards us to sell stuff. My room at the Pumpkin hotel is already available, so I can take a shower and have breakfast first.
I’m taking it easy this morning and take some time to read. It’s drizzling outside and Sapa is shrouded in a thick fog. Due to its location between the mountains, it is rarely completely clear in Sapa, but today it’s especially gloomy. At about 10 a.m. I walk into the village to get a map of Sapa and the surrounding area from the tourist information. After studying it, I decide to do two things here: today I go walking on my own to Cat Cat (about three kilometers from Sapa) and for tomorrow I book a tour to the villages of Má Cha (where Black H’mong live) and Ta Phin (a Red Dzao village).
At a lunchroom I get sandwiches for the road (Sapa is equipped with all tourist conveniences) and walk out of the village. Cat Cat is not far, but the road descends quite steeply into the valley. You walk between the rice terraces that are built against the mountains all over this area. When the rice is fully growing and it’s a clear day, this makes for incredibly beautiful pictures. Today, unfortunately, it’s not that beautiful and moreover, now is not the rice season in the north; later on this trip it will turn out that in the south it is). However, the mist that hangs over the rice fields around the mountains gives the whole a somewhat mystical atmosphere. Sapa is infested with tourists, but here I’m almost alone. Some wooden houses, a single sales stall and some Black H’mong children is all I come across. And the Cat Cat waterfall of course, which you pass by all the way down in the valley.
The Black H’mong, a mountain people originally from China, are extremely poor and have little prospects for the future. But they are smart traders: you meet the Black H’mong women everywhere and Cat Cat is clearly put on the map for every tourist. It’s a wonderfully relaxing walk (despite the occasional pretty slippery path going up and down). After a steep climb up I am back in Sapa. It has started to rain again and I hang my clothes to dry in my hotel room. But it’s so cold and damp here that nothing dries. The rest of the day I relax, have dinner and read a book.
When I wake up the next morning, there is no electricity. Fortunately, when I walk into Sapa for breakfast, it’s foggy but dry. The Black H’mong women are already walking down the main street and at the square near the church. Every day these women walk from their villages in the mountains to Sapa to sell their stuff to tourists. My guide for today is called Guen, a friendly boy who will show me the way today. With an old army jeep (a Russian-made copy discarded by the Vietnamese army) we drive out of Sapa and then continue on foot. An uneven path runs for miles between the rice terraces. On a clear day you can see endless rice fields with the mountains in the background. Today it is only rice terraces in the mist. Guen tells me that it’s like this 300 days a year. I’m not sure if he’s only telling me this to comfort me.
It is a very quiet walk, only occasionally do we meet other tourists. A Black H’mong woman we meet at the start of the tour wants to sell me something, which I politely decline, but that doesn’t deter her and she walks with us all the way. After more than two hours we arrive at Ta Phin and have lunch at a Red Dzao family’s home. In Ta Phin many women wear traditional clothing. You can recognize them by the striking red headscarves (the Black H’mong wear black headgear) and their decorated clothing. Some are sitting in front of a shop with local items, others are making embroidery. But most start harassing tourists as soon as they come into sight.
After walking a little further, to a French monastery that burned down in 1945, we return to Sapa by army jeep. The walk took about five hours in total. I thank Guen for the nice trip and the fun and at 5 p.m. I am picked up by a minibus for the ride back to the Lao Cai train station. Just after 8 p.m. I’m on my bed in the night train that will take me back to Hanoi. I must say it’s a very efficient way of traveling. You cover great distances while you sleep and you don’t ‘lose’ any time. You have to be lucky with your fellow passengers, but so far I am. During the return journey I share the couchette with Australians again.
At 5 a.m. there is music in the train, a sign that we are almost in Hanoi. In front of the train station it’s teeming with taxis. One of them takes me to the guesthouse, where I take a shower and put on clean clothes. After a quick breakfast, a taxi drops me off at the company with which I am going to do a tour to Halong Bay. A little while later I find myself on a bus to Halong Bay with a number of French, Swedes, Colombians, Spaniards, Australians and one Belgian guy. The drive takes 3.5 hours, not that it is that far, but the traffic is just slow. Luckily I have my mp3-player with me.
It’s very busy in the harbor of Halong City. A boat trip through Halong Bay is a very popular excursion. There are several dozen boats waiting and there are literally hundreds of tourists. The boats are made after the design of classic Chinese boats. If desired, they can hoist their sails, which are in the shape of a quarter of a circle. When we borad, I am positively surprised: there’s a spacious dining room, the rooms with double beds and a private bathroom are excellent and there’s a large upper deck where you can enjoy the view. Really nice!
After we’ve had lunch on board everyone goes to the upper deck, because we are now sailing between the high rocks that rise up from the water and which are characteristic of Halong Bay. It’s cloudy but that should not spoil the fun: this is a truly beautiful area! The rocks rise straight up from the water, tens of meters high, the more distant rocks in various shades of gray in the mist. Very picturesque! I take the time to quietly enjoy the environment. Here you don’t notice the crowds anymore, the other boats are far away. After an hour of sailing we arrive at a cave, which we visit. I’ve seen a cave or two before, but this one is really huge. We also visit a rocky island, Dao Titop (Dao means island in Vietnamese), where you can walk to the top of the rock for a beautiful view over Halong Bay.
At the end of the afternoon the boat drops anchor in the bay and in the evening we get a very good meal again. It is very pleasant at the table with the French and the Belgian. After dinner I get into a conversation with the two Australian girls, others join in and not much later the individuals who boarded a minibus this morning and didn’t know each other yet have merged into a nice group having a really nice evening together. I go to bed (or should I say: cabin) tired but satisfied.
After a good night’s sleep, we sail a little further, after which a part of the group returns to Halong City. With the Spaniards and Colombians I transfer to a smaller boat (less luxurious and less comfortable) that takes us to Cat Ba island. A little later I’m cycling across the green island on a dilapidated mountain bike. Cat Ba consists largely of mountains, with a few small rice fields and houses in between. My mountain bike squeaks and creaks all over the place, but it’s holding up. It’s a nice outing, but nothing spectacular.
Around lunchtime we are back on the boat. As we sail further, we pass some floating fishing villages. Those are something special. The villages consist of small wooden houses, built on plastic floats held together by wooden poles and rope. It’s home to local fishermen who sail out with small boats every day. It looks colorful: the houses are painted blue and green and have red roofs. Some villages are small, others count dozens of houses.
At 3 p.m. we arrive in Cat Ba City, actually more of a village, with a row of hotels on a bay. In my hotel room I realize I’ve been traveling for a week now and haven’t seen a minute of sun. Fortunately, the weather will improve as I travel further south. Vietnam has three climatic zones, so there is no single period when the weather is nice in all parts of the country.
The next day the journey back to Hanoi is planned. First by boat back from Cat Ba island. Halfway through we have to change boats again. There appears to be a reason for this: Cat Ba is located in Haiphong province and Halong Bay itself belongs to Halong province and boats are not allowed to enter each other’s ‘territorial waters’. The boats move slowly, making it a long trip. Along the way I kill the time reading and – which is good here – endlessly gazing over the water at all the rock formations and small, impassable islands. Many of the rocks have been eroded by the tides, so they slope inward at the bottom and appear to be floating on the water.
Back in the port of Halong City the long drive back awaits and late afternoon I am back in Hanoi. In a taxi on one of the main roads of Hanoi (a busy road, especially during rush hour, with three lanes into the city and three lanes out of the city, although they don’t actually have any lanes here, everyone just drives where there is space) I see a little boy with a wooden step in his hand, standing in the middle of the road. He is halfway across the road and the cars are racing in front of and behind him. I know, that’s how you cross the road here. But every now and then you hold your breath…
From Hanoi I take the 11 p.m. night train to Hué, which is about 600 kilometers south of the Vietnamese capital. With that I not only leave Hanoi behind, but I also leave the area that used to be North Vietnam. By train I will pass through the Demilitarized Zone, the former border between North and South Vietnam (the country was separated in 1954 into a communist Viet Minh-ruled north and a French-ruled south). In the ‘American War’, the fiercest battles were fought here, including the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong’s surprise attack on the Americans during the Vietnamese New Year.
When I wake up, the train has completed about three quarters of the journey. The last part I watch one rice field after another pass by. At 10:30 a.m. we arrive at Hué station. Several taxi drivers start yelling as soon as they see me, so I’m at my hotel in no time. It is warmer here than in the far north, some 25 degrees. After taking my stuff to my hotel room, I walk into town.
Hué is located on both sides of the Song Huong, which means something like ‘Perfume River’. On the south bank is the lively center of the town, on the north bank the old walled citadel (Kinh Tanh). In the realy nineteenth century, this place was chosen by the then emperor for his seat. The Vietnamese emperors would remain in Hué until the French moved the center of power to Hanoi. The citadel suffered greatly from the ‘American War’, only a few of the many buildings survived the battle. Everywhere rebuilding and restoration is taking place. Inside the citadel is a citadel-within-the-citadel: the Emperial Enclosure. At the heart of this is the ‘Forbidden Purple City’, the part reserved exclusively for the emperor to use.
After visiting the citadel, I walk back to the south bank of the Song Huong. Here again all those mopeds and scooters and the endless honking. After lunch I take some time to relax. I’m still a bit groggy from the night on the train, so I’m calling it a day early. The next morning I rent a bike at the hotel not much later I find myself cycling in Hué. Now that I’m cycling between traffic, I understand why many cyclists and moped riders wear face masks here. I cycle to the north bank of the Song Huong and along the river for a while. Here is my first stop: the Thien Mu pagoda. The 21-meter high, octagonal tower was built in 1844 by order of the emperor. Behind the tower is a garden with a modest temple and behind the temple another garden with a somewhat smaller pagoda.
Where the railway bridge crosses the river, you can also cross the river by bicycle on a very narrow path. I found a cycling route on the Internet and I am going to try to follow it. But first I want to eat something so I stop at a small place along the road where some Vietnamese are eating. No one speaks English here but I understand they only have Phó (noodle soup). Which is fine. Back on my bike, soon I am sent off the main road, past the small houses of the village of Ho Quyen. Children I meet wave enthusiastically and shout “Hello!” Smiling I wave back at them.
The route is well described and after a while I arrive as planned at the Tomb of Tu Duc. This is one of the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled Vietnam from Hue for a long time. The tombs are a kind of temple complexes. Tu Duc’s has a large entrance gate, behind which is a garden with a pond and a wooden pavilion where the emperor often met his concubines. Another gate is followed by a courtyard with a temple (the Hoa Kien temple) where the deceased emperor is honored.
The cycle route turns into an unpaved path and a part goes between the rice fields. I stop to take pictures, which causes laughter among the women working in the rice field. Again enthusiastic waving. On the way back I pass through the village of Nam Giao, which lies next to Hué. I take some pictures of the local market and then cycle back into Hué. I arrive near my hotel. I cycled for more than four hours and did not get lost! Back at the hotel I shower off the dust and sweat and then I walk back into town. There are several cafes and restaurants near the river. On the small terrace of Café Why Not? I order a Tiger beer and relax a while after this active day. I have dinner at La Carambole, a kind of French bistro, until you notice the lanterns and dragons on the ceiling. Super food, highly recommended.
The next morning I take the bus to Hoi An. Coincidentally, I run into the French couple from Halong Bay in the bus. The bus ride from Hue to Hoi An takes more than four hours. Around noon we arrive in Hoi An, where I hail a taxi, because my hotel is a bit outside the center. The weather is very different from Sapa and Halong Bay: it’s sunny and over thirty degrees! Yes, finally!
When I’m settled, I rent a bike and cyclee to the beach, about 3 kilometers east of my hotel. A little later I’m lying at the beach, under a thatched umbrella, and looking out over the South China Sea. This is quite enjoyable! When I cycle back to Hoi An a few hours later, I notice the red flags and banners along the road. It shows the years 1930 and 2010 and the communist symbol with the hammer and sickle. This year marks the 80th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In other places I see portraits of Ho Chi Minh and socialist propaganda boards. In Vietnam, socialism is still very much alive.
Hoi An is located on the bank of the Thu Bon River and on the tip of Cam Nam Island, a small island in the river, is a restaurant from where you have a great view of the river and the old houses of Hoi An. With a Tiger beer and delicious food I enjoy the view, the boats that sail by and the setting sun. What a place!
The next morning, breakfast is served in the garden of the hotel. It’s another beautiful day, sunny and thirty degrees. I get on my bike to Hoang Dien Street. To visit temples, museums and a number of old houses in Hoi An you need an ‘Old Town Ticket’. The proceeds will be used for restoration work. Hoi An is an old town, many houses were built in the eightteenth and nineteenth century, some even in the sixteenth century. At the time, Hoi An was an important port city on trade routes in the Far East. The Chinese have also left their mark here. Hoi An has been spared the ravages of the ‘American War’ and the center of the town is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The old part of the town is easy to walk and I stroll leisurely down the streets. In the Tran Phu street I visit three Chinese temples, of which in my opinion the Quan Cong temple is the most beautiful. The temple was built in 1653 in honor of a highly regarded Chinese general. Residents of Hoi An still regularly come here to make offerings. For example in the form of the spiral incense that hangs from the ceiling. I’ve never seen those before. The statue of Quang Cong is also regularly provided with food. Fruit, chicken, even a whole pig is sacrificed.
In Hoi An there are also a few community halls where the Chinese community used to gather. Every Chinese community (Fujian, Cantonese, Hainan) had its own space, which, looks very much like temples. At the end of Tran Phu Street is the covered Japanese Bridge, built by the Japanese in 1590 and restored in the 1980s. The bridge connected the Japanese quarter with the Chinese quarters. All in all, I am wandering around Hoi An all morning, after which I enjoy lunch at Mermaid, one of the oldest restaurants in Hoi An.
After lunch I go cycling in the vicinity of Hoi An. Soon I am out of the town and immediately I’m back between the rice fields. Vietnamese who are working in the fields all wear that typical, conical straw hat, which you also see a lot in the streets. One Vietnamese guy insists on taking a picture of me pretending I’m planting rice (with a straw hat on). Well, okay then…
The next day is a relaxed day. I sleep in, have breakfast and read for a while. Early afternoon I am picked up at the hotel and taken to Danang, a half hour drive north of Hoi An. From the small, outdated (yet international) airport of Danang I fly in under an hour to Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of Vietnam. At the airport, some taxi drivers try to trick foreigners by offering to take them into the city for USD 15. Don’t do that: look for a taxi with a meter, the ride to the city should cost about 100,000 dong (4 euros).
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon
Maybe first clarify something: is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? A little bit of both. Until 1975 Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam. The day after the army of North Vietnam captured the city, the government in Hanoi renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City. To this day that is the official name of the city. However, most residents of the city speak of Saigon. So I will do that as well from now on.
Saigon is a large, busy city (seven million inhabitants) with the atmosphere of a metropolis much more than Hanoi. High-rises everywhere, large billboards and lots of neon signs. Modern shops, trendy restaurants and cafes and luxury hotels. When I walk into the city, I immediately notice how incredibly hot it is. It’s 35 degrees, there is hardly any wind and the humidity is almost 80%.
Via the Le Loi street I arrive in the heart of ‘District 1’, where most of the sights are. One of the most striking buildings is the People’s Committee Building, built in the early twentieth century. This is Saigon City Hall. A few blocks away, next to Notre Dame Cathedral (which, incidentally, does not resemble its namesake in Paris), is Saigon’s Central Post Office. This beautiful building, built by the French at the end of the 19th century, is still largely in its original condition and still serves as a post office.
Next I walk to the Reunification Palace. After the French colonized Vietnam in the late 1800s, they built a presidential palace here. It was bombed to the ground in 1962 by the Vietnamese army in an attempt to assassinate President Diem. In the 1960s the current palace was built on the same spot. The new building, in typical 1960s architecture, became known as Independence Palace (which is still on the entrance ticket), but has been called Reunification Palace since the reunification of North and South Vietnam. It’s a beautiful building, where you can admire the reception rooms and quarters of the Vietnamese president. Underneath the palace is a bomb proof bunker. In the narrow, bare corridors with fluorescent lights, the Vietnamese president lived with his staff and the army commander in times of war. The place makes you feel like going back 35 years in time, to 1975, when the North Vietnamese army stormed the palace and took power in South Vietnam.
In the afternoon I visit the War Remnants Museum. On the ground floor of this museum are horrific photos of the consequences of the American bombing and napalm attacks. The well-known photo of the napalm attack on My Lai is on display, a photo in which an American soldier holds up a dismembered Vietnamese, and a photo in which American soldiers subject a Vietnamese to ‘waterboarding’ (a method already used at that time, although it was then called less euphemistically ‘water torture’). On the first floor there are pictures of how the struggle in Vietnam developed, from the French defeat, through an increasingly escalating war, to the American defeat. It is a museum that shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Perhaps one-sided, but nevertheless a very impressive exhibition.
After the museum I walk past the Mariamman temple, the only Hindu temple in Saigon, a small, modest temple that is still in use. The last stop for today is the rooftop bar of the Sheraton hotel. This is one of the tallest buildings in Saigon and from the 23rd floor you have a great view over the city. Near the hotel I run into the French couple from Halong Bay again. Again! Over a week later, in a city of seven million people on the other side of the country. Really bizarre.
The next day I leave my luggage at the hotel and report to the tour company that wil take me on a two-day tour to the Mekong Delta. This wetland area is located in the southwest of Vietnam and was part of Cambodia for a long time. The Mekong River, one of the largest rivers in the world, flows into the South China Sea here (after flowing from Tibet through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia). The delta is an agricultural area, and so fertile that it is very densely populated. A significant portion of Vietnamese rice is produced in the Mekong Delta.
First we drive to Cai Be in an air-conditioned coach filled with Americans, French, Koreans, Japanese and me. In Cai Be we transfer to a boat, with which we make a trip on the Mekong River. On the way we pass the ‘floating market’ of Cai Be. For most people this is the place to do their daily shopping: with a small boat they sail to the larger boats to get vegetables or potatoes. Almost everyone who lives here is a fisherman, farmer or rice grower. The people live directly on the river or one of the many tributaries that together form the delta. Those who cannot afford a house on shore live on their boats.
We have lunch on the island of Vinh Long, where we also get to see how rice paper is made (which is used to make those delicious spring rolls). Then we continue by bus and by ferry we make the crossing to the island of Can Tho. For the night we will stay in the eponymous ‘capital’ of the island, which is the fifth largest city in Vietnam with over 300,000 inhabitants. I bring my stuff to the hotel and walk into the city, towards the Can Tho river. A beautiful pedestrian promenade with palm trees and benches has been constructed along the quay. In the center is a large bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh.
After dinner it turns out that Can Tho is not much inferior to Saigon. The streets are bustling with bright neon signs everywhere, there is a street market where you can buy everything from fruit to household items, and loud pop music is heard from the trendy clothing stores.
The next morning we leave Can Tho early for a long trip down the Mekong Delta. This time in a long, narrow, open boat (yesterday’s one had a roof). We first sail past the large floating market of Cai Rang, where all kinds of fruit and vegetables go from boat to boat. This makes for some nice photos. The boat trip continues via the small tributaries, between the vegetation and the small houses (sometimes made of reed, sometimes made of corrugated iron). On the way we visit a rice processing factory. Incidentally, not only rice is grown in the Mekong Delta, but also coconuts, cane sugar and fruit.
After lunch, the journey back begins, in stages. Back in Saigon I check in at my hotel, where I am reunited with my luggage. It’s my last night in Vietnam and I have dinner at the well-regarded restaurant Mon Hué. And rightfully so, the food is to die for. The next day my trip to Vietnam comes to an end. My memory cards are full and I’ve spent (almost) all my dongs. In the afternoon I take a taxi to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. I leave Saigon, where it is over thirty degrees, and (again via Hong Kong) I fly back to the Netherlands, where it is probably just above freezing. Friday morning at 6:15 a.m. I land at Amsterdam Airport.
It’s been a beuatifil trip. The question I’ve been asked the most by men during this trip: “Hey motorbike”? (All over Vietnam on every street corner there are men who want to transport you to your destination.) The most frequently asked question by women: “Do you travel alone?”, invariably followed by the question “Do you have a girlfriend?” (The correct answer to these two questions immediately made me an eligible bachelor). What will stay with me the most is the hectic streets, the delicious food and the friendly people. Vietnam is (once you get there) a cheap destination, I did not feel unsafe for a moment during this trip, I gained many impressions and everything was well arranged. In short: Vietnam is highy recommended!