Vietnam from south to north
By bus, rickshaw, plane, boat, taxi, bicycle and moped
From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, via My Tho with its stilt houses along the river, Vinh Long where boats loaded with rice sail on the Mekong, Sadec with its beautiful pagodas, the strawberry and coffee plantations of Dalat, Buon Ma Thuot where the population keeps elephants, Hoi An with its atmospheric town center, the Cham temples in My Son and the ancient emperor's city Hué.
Travelogue & photos: Chantal Nederstigt
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Clouds of incense in temples
After our arrival we immediately are caught up in the chaos around the airport. The first taxi driver who approaches us, asks way too much. The second one asks the price that is mentioned in our guidebook.
We go out and explore Saigon. The De Tham street is in the so-called Trotter district and it shows: cappuccino, pizza and Mexican food.
When the herds of mopeds drive us crazy (so soon already...), we turn a corner and end up in a nice working-classs street. You can look inside everywhere, because most houses have open fronts. The kids are in front of the TV, the parents are cooking outside.
We find a small restaurant in a side street of De Tham street, where we have a simple rice dish with stir-fried eggplant and garlic.
The next morning we visit the Ben Thanh market, which is the central market of Saigon, and it really has everything. The section with vegetables, fruit and herbs is the most interesting, as far as we are concerned.
We walk down the promenade, from City Hall to the Saigon river. This is where boats leave for the Mekong Delta.
We walk along the river and look for a market that is mentioned in our guidebook. We buy apples and a shocking-pink fruit with scales on the outside; the inside is white with black seeds. It is delicious. Later we find out that it is called dragon fruit.
We take a taxi to Cholon, the Chinese district in Saigon. The market there is touristic, with lots of textiles like T-shirts. We visit two temples, which are filled with clouds of incense. We buy bapao sandwiches and a coconut roll for lunch. Tasty and incredibly cheap.
In the afternoon we take a bicycle rickshaw to a pagoda on the edge of the city. The two of us just fit in the rickshaw. I want to get off at the Giac Lam pagoda, but the rickshaw man tips the vehicle too far over, launching me on the street. And he thinks it's funny, too: he's laughing.
On the grounds of the pagoda are a cemetery, a large Buddha statue and the pagoda itself. Inside it is a tree with cards left by people who prayed for sick relatives here.
On the way back we take two rickshaws, but at some point they won't go on, because some streets are closed to rickshaws. The De Tham street is nearby, they say. We heard that some streets in the city center are closed to rickshaws, so we believe them. It turns out we shouldn't have: we are about 4 kilometers from our hotel.
In the evening we have dinner with eggrolls and coconut rice with meat and vegetables, served in a coconut.
Stilt houses along the river
Today we travel to the town of My Tho in the Mekong Delta. In this wet area south of Saigon eighty per cent of all rice in Vietnam is grown.
During the one-and-half-hours drive we see the landscape change from urban and dusty to bright green rice fields and rivers lined with palm trees.
Our room in the hotel in My Tho has a river view. On the other side are stilt houses. We like it here: its much quieter and there is no smog.
Via our hotel we rent bikes and ride to the market. Everyone laughs when they see us lock our bikes with the heavy lock I brought with me. We buy tomatoes, cucumber and pineapple in the market.
Then we bicycle to the Vinh Trang pagoda, 2 km from the town. At the entrance fruit, peanuts and many other things are sold. The pagoda is colorful and supposedly was built with French, Khmer and Chinese influences. Inside are little altars everywhere with incense and there is a large golden Buddha statue.
The boats are loaded with rice
We are picked up early for a boat trip in the delta. We leave our backpacks in the hotel. First we are taken to the ferry on the back seats of two mopeds. They drive fast, of course without helmets.
The ferry is ready to leave and the brother of the moped guy will welcome us on the other side of the river. The crossing only takes 10 minutes and, indeed, the brother is waiting and takes us to a blue boat with a cloth covering to protect us from the sun.
It's nice and cool on the water. First we sail through a narrow canal. It feels as if we are in a tropical forest. The banks on both sides are overgrown with palm trees and we hear all kinds of birds.
We dock at a place where honey is made. They show us the bee hives and of course we can buy honey. We are offered tea with honey and lemon and then we take a walk in the surroundings.
When we get back to the boat, our skipper notices that the water is at its lowest level, which makes it impossible to turn. He has to push the boat into deeper water.
Then we visit Turtle Island with its beautiful flowers, among which Chinese roses (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis).
The second island we visit is Phoenix Island. There's a temple that looks mostly like a delapidated children's playground. All kinds of objects are made of wood and coconut here.
Afterwards we are dropped near the ferry and we walk back to the hotel, where we pick up our backpacks.
A rickshaw driver at the bus station tells us we have to take a bus to My Thuang and transfer there to a bus to Vinh Long.
On the way we say to each other that the guy who drives the bus is so nice, but unfortunately that isn't true at all. We have to get off the bus a little before My Thuang with a vague story about transferring here.
In turns out that the bus guy is in cahoots with a moped guy who wants a lot of money to take us to Vinh Long, which is only a short ride. He says there is no bus to Vinh Long. We don't believe him.
Suddenly there is a bus that apparently goes to Vinh Long. I ask the driver and he nods, so we want to get on the bus. But the moped guy stops the driver from letting us in. They are all in on this and we are not allowed to board the bus.
There is no way in hell I will ride with the moped guy now. A little later another bus stops, it also goes to Vinh Long. This time the driver ignores the screaming moped guy.
Once on our way it turns out that this driver also wants to wheedle money out of us. I offer half of what he asks, that's all he can get. The other passengers are laughing out loud. It's a risk, he could throw us out. But eventually he takes the money.
This morning we want to take a boat ride to the floating markets of Cai Be. Only the tourist office is allowed to offer boat rides to tourists, and because of this monopoly they can ask a ridiculously high price. But if you're lucky you will be approached by people in the streets who want to take you with them on their boats. And so it happens.
On the Mekong river, which we have to cross, are tall waves that rock the boat. A narrow river takes us to the island of An Binh. We see many rice boats. They are loaded to capacity.
We are too late for the floating market, only a few boats with pumpkins and bananas are left. We dock at an island where rice paper is produced. They show us how it is made. Another activity here is drying longan, a local kind of fruit. Dried, longan tastes like dates.
In the afternoon we take a ferry to another part of the An Binh island, where we take a wonderful walk through the fruit orchards. We see, among others, mangoes, papayas and bananas.
In the evening we have dinner in a restaurant on the promenade. We have a hot pot with rice. A hot pot is a pan of soup with meat and vegetables, which is ladled into a bowl and mixed with rice.
The monk keeps walking with us along the river
The next day we take a ride in the back seats of two mopeds to Sadec, 16 km from where we are. The trip is fun, especially the views of brickyards.
We look around to see what this village has to offer. There are some pretty old pagodas, whose roofs are decorated with all kinds of figures, especially dragons.
When we visit pagoda Phuoc Hung Tu we ask if we can use the bathroom. We can, and when we get back, the monk offers us a cup of tea. He shows us an older pagoda, Thien An Cung. It is even prettier.
Next we want to visit some flower nurseries, one kilometer farther. The monk keeps walking with us. It is a nice walk along the river.
On the way we pass a colorful Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a mix of different religions, among which Buddhism and Christianity.
At the nursery it's nice and quiet. They grow flowers, houseplants and bonsai trees here.
We walk back to the center of town, take our leave of the guide/monk and take a moped ride back to Vinh Long.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Rural with many fields and farms
This morning we take the bus to Saigon. There we visit the peninsula of Thu Thiem, which can be reached by ferry. It is rural with many fields and farms. At one farm we are offered coconut milk.
A cute little girl, about two years old, is sitting in a hammock. I ask her mother if I can take her picture. Immediately after I have done that, the poor girl starts to cry. My camera scared her. To comfort her, we give her and her brothers and sisters some candy.
The coconut milk isn't really tasty, it's very salty, but the gesture of hospitality is so nice that we of course drink it.
Women weave blankets, shawls and table cloths
This morning we are on a six hours bus ride to Dalat. The bus keeps passing other traffic and the chauffeur drives like a maniac. Traffic is busy with mopeds going every possible way and then there are bikes, handcarts, cars, trucks, etc. It's a miracle nothing happens.
In the afternoon we explore Dalat and see, among other sights, a market.
It turns out that on Saturday and Sunday nights the city center is a pedestrian area. When we sit down on a square, two Vietnamese want their picture taken with us. They are also on vacation and want to know everything about us: address, age, and whether we are married. They have the pictures developed immediately and give us two as a memory.
Today we walk to Lake Thuyen Lam, a 7 kilometers walk. Because of the altitude it's nice and cool, around 25 degrees centigrade. We walk in the woods around the lake and along coffee and strawberry plantations.
Some agricultural workers are willing to take us back in their truck, for a fee. We sit between pineapples.
In Dalat we take a walk around an artificial lake, a distance of about 5 km.
The next day we visit a Lat village, 12 kilometers away. The Lat are an ethnic minority that was driven from Dalat in the past.
The Lat village is fortunately not very touristic. Everything is real. The guide has a lot to say about the village, he tells us among other things how marriages are made (the woman picks a man) and shows us many things.
We are allowed to look inside a house and see how they live. There is only one bed, for the elderly; everyone else sleep on the ground. To stay warm, a fire burns all night at the center of the house. The women weave beautiful blankets, shawls and tablecloths on their looms.
The guide shows us musical instruments. Music is very important for Lat festivals. We pass a medical practice; the village has one doctor and two nurses. People are waiting for their turn.
In the afternoon we visit the Thien Vuong pagoda. It has three 4 meters high statues, which were flown in by helicopter from Saigon. Behind the pagoda, on the top of a hill, stands a large white Buddha statue in lotus position.
When we walk toward it, we see a swing seat decorated with two large dogs (cuddly toys) sitting on it. Just for fun, I take a picture of Saskia sitting on the swing seat between the dogs. Suddenly a woman appears out of thin air and she tells us we have to pay. The dogs are here bread winning. Oh well.
Then we visit the most fun hotel in Dalat (and maybe all of Vietnam), the Crazy House, designed by a female architect. The hotel is built in Gaudi style, very surreal. Everything has round shapes and is connected to nature. Every room has its own theme. There is a tiger suite, with a tiger sculpture in the living room.
There are crocodile sculptures in the garden, fantasy animals and large cobwebs. A giraffe serves as a staircase to the hotel rooms on the second floor.
Buon Ma Thuot
People keep elephants to transport tree trunks
At three AM a taxi takes us to the bus station. The bus trip leads along beautiful views, between mountains and along bright green rice paddies. We frequently have to slow down to avoid cow herds.
After a four-hour trip we arrive in Buon Ma Thuot. We imagined it to be a quiet rural town, but it's a busy city.
The next morning we walk around, but it's a disappointment. We want to rent bikes, but they only have mopeds. We look for the museum of ethnic minorities, but we don't find it.
In the evening we see a bar on a corner. It is crowded with Vietnamese youngsters and there is Vietnamese popular music. The waitress tries some English, but communication is difficult, as usual. We don't understand her English and she doesn't understand ours.
This morning we take a moped-backseat ride to the village of Ban Don. On the way we see villages with stilt houses, the people who live here are Mwang and Ede. We also see a funeral procession, for which the whole village comes out. The coffin is carried on a tractor, the local means of transportation.
In less than an hour we arrive in Ban Don. Here, in contrast with other ethnic minority villages, we don't need permission. We buy the moped guys a drink and go explore. We walk along traditional stilt houses. The stilts served to keep wild animals (that used to live here) out.
The people of Ban Don also keep elephants to transport tree trunks and harvests. We see one walk in the village. People have cows, buffalo, pigs and chickens.
The moped guys are eating noodle soup when we get back. I ask them if it's true that they eat noodle soup three times a day. Yes, they do. I can't imagine that they don't get fed up with the stuff.
One of the moped guys asks about Holland. Saskia takes out her calender with pictures of Holland. He thinks it's a fantastic place and wonders why in heaven's name he had to be born in Vietnam.
On the way back we stop in another village to take a walk, but we have to stay on the main road, the police tell us. Apparently you need a permit to visit here.
The town center has old houses in narrow streets
This morning we fly to Danang. The moped guy who took us to Ban Don yesterday keeps our appointment and is waiting in front of our hotel.
On the way it gets a little complicated: I am in the back seat of his mate, who doesn't speak English. We lose sight of the moped with Saskia and he doesn't know where to go. When I say "airport" or "plane", he doesn't understand me.
All of a sudden we see the moped guy and Saskia standing on the side of the road. They are waiting for us.
There is only one plane in the airport. The flight takes only an hour and in Danang we take a taxi to the bus terminal. The taxi stops by the bus to Hoi An.
The taxi driver tries to cheat us by selling us a ten times too expensive bus ticket. We are suspicious and walk to the ticket office, under loud protest of the bus and taxi drivers. The woman in the ticket office is afraid to sell us a ticket, because the bus driver is making a lot of noise. Only after the bus has left, she sells us the tickets. Fortunately there's a bus to Hoi An every half hour.
In the afternoon we explore the old town center of Hoi An. We get a pass with which we can visit a temple, a Chinese hall, an old house and a museum of our choice.
The town center is atmospheric and has old houses in narrow streets. But it is very touristic, almost every building houses a souvenir shop and every one has the standard chat: "Where are you from?" "What is your name?"
Today we rent bikes. Our first destination is Cua Dai Beach, at 5 kilometers from Hoi An. It's a nice route along rice paddies, on a rather quiet road.
Upon our arrival at the beach we are referred to the guarded bicycle shed. We don't think so, we didn't bring our cable lock for nothing. They call after us that we are not allowed to park our bikes in the street, but we ignore them.
It is a beautiful beach with white sand, lined with palm trees. Finally we get to see the sea, the South Chinese one at that. We walk along the tide line. Everywhere people call after us if we want a drink or a beach chair.
On the way back to Hoi An we take a different route and all of a sudden we find ourselves surrounded by rice paddies. A man is washing his buffaloes and doesn't mind if we take a picture. We also see large white birds, ibises.
Then we visit a pagoda outside the city. On its grounds are three beautiful stupas.
In a quiet place amidst the rice fields we eat a sandwich. When we are lying on our backs in the grass, I hear someone approaching. It is a woman with a yoke filled with hay. She doesn't mind if we take her picture, she even poses for us.
This morning we take the bus to My Son, the Cham temple area. The bus ride takes an hour and leads along rice paddies.
Most Cham temples in My Son were destroyed by American bombers during the war, but some have remained intact. Most of the temples are devoted to Shivah, the Hindu god. The temples date from the fourth through the thirteenth centuries.
You have to stay on the paths in My Son, because of the landmines that still lie here.
In the afternoon we visit a temple in Hoi An and afterwards sit down in an outdoor café with a view of the river.
The Citadel gives a good impression of the lives of the emperors
Against our principles we take a tourist bus to Hué, because it's very affordable, so much so that it would be more expensive to travel by local bus, including transportation to and from bus stations.
The bus stops twice on the way, the first time at a workshop where marble statues are made, the second time at a beach.
We explore Hué in the afternoon and find some nice working-class streets.
The next day we want to rent bicycles, but that isn't as easy as it sounds. People here are even shorter than other Vietnamese and most bikes are really too small for us. Eventually we find two bikes that are kind of okay and we go on our way.
We ride to the walled-in old city, looking for the East Gate. The two gates we see on the way aren't very special.
After asking around, we hear that the East Gate isn't part of the old city wall, but a gate in the Citadel wall, which lies within the old city.
The Citadel gives a good impression of the lives of the emperors of Hué. In de Citadel, the palaces and the purple Forbidden City (the emperor's private domain) were destroyed during the war. The pavillion and the throne room survived.
In the afternoon we bicycle to the most famous pagoda in Vietnam, Thien Mu. It has seven floors. The temple has a gilded laughing Buddha, which brings good fortune and luck. There are also three regular Buddhas.
Today we rent bikes in another place, hoping to find better ones. But they still are old wrecks that would be on the scrapheap in Holland.
We bicycle to Tu Duc's tomb. It is located in a green, hilly environment. In this area incense sticks are made and we buy a box along the road.
The tomb lies in a vast area with pavillions, a gate and of course temples. Tu Duc was a 19th century emperor, who had over a hundred wives, but no children. He had an adopted son, who is buried here as well.
Today we have ourselves taken to a beach at a distance of 15 kilometers, in the back seats of two mopeds. There is a nice breeze. Except for four Brits, the beach is deserted.
We walk the to nearby village of Thuan An. The moped guys ask twice the regular price to take us back, but when we keep walking, they come after us and eventually accept what we are willing to pay.
Colorful houseboats between rock formations
Today we fly to Hanoi, where it's hotter than we expected, 24 degrees centigrade. Much hotter than usual in February.
On our first exploration we see many interesting streets. At 5 PM it's incredibly busy. People are cooking food in the streets everywhere and all schools are out. It takes some getting used to, such a big city.
We have dinner in a nice Vietnamese restaurant. Prices are higher than elsewhere in Vietnam. After dinner we take a walk around the lake.
The next morning we walk through the old center of Hanoi. We start at a temple on an island in the lake. It is dedicated to a national hero from the 13th century, Tran Hung Dao.
There also is a replica of a turtle that plays an important role in the myth about the lake. The turtle is supposed to have given a poor fisherman a sword with magical powers to defeat the Chinese. And thus the fisherman became emperor.
We continue on our walk through streets where old crafts are still practised. Each street has its own theme. There is a spice street, a silver street, a cobbler street, etc.
In the afternoon we walk to the Literature temple, a well conserved 13th century temple. It has several courtyards. In the last one there's traditional Vietnamese music.
In the evening we see a water puppet show, with good music performed with traditional Vietnamese instruments. The show is comedic, with stories like the myth of the lake.
Today we take a day trip to Ha Long Bay. First a three-hour drive to the port of Ha Long City, where we board a ship.
We visit beautiful caves with stalactites. Then we sail along the rock formations of Ha Long Bay. Colorful houseboats are docked between theze formations.
The next morning we take the city bus to the Western Lake, north- west of the city. There are two pagodas her. It's rainy and a fog hangs over the lake. You can rent swan boats here.
Afterwards we walk to Ho Chi Min's mausoleum. We don't need to see his embalmed body, so we don't go inside. By the way: he didn't want this at all. He wanted to be cremated, but the government ignored his whishes after his death.
In the afternoon we take the bus to Son Tay, just to get out of the city. We are no longer in tourist country. Apart from a Cambodian who studies in Hanoi, no one speaks English. He interprets for us.
Son Tay itself is not interesting, a few houses along a busy roead. But we walk to the fields to see people at work in the rice fields. They are using some kind of baskets to water the rice field. A little farther buffaloes are ploughing the mud.
Tomorrow we fly back to Holland.