Vit nam - June & July 2002

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How it all beganCathay Pacific bound for Hong Kong
A former college classmate of mine asked me early in the year 2002 if I wanted to accompany her and her family to her home country - Vietnam. Having never been any further than our own neighbour country, Sweden, this would be quite a barrier for me to cross, but after a bit of contemplation, I decided to accept the offer, which would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience anyway.

How does one prepare for such a trip? I decided to get a hold of some literature first-hand, so I ordered the book "Lonely Planet - Vietnam" from the UK branch of Amazon. I read through this in quite detail, focusing on the parts that we were planning to visit - the southern half of the country. The next part would be checking out necessary vaccines, which turned out to be a few: Diphteria, Hepatitis A, Polio, Tetanus, Tyfoid fever, as well as the most expensive drink ever - a 3 ml "shot" to protect against Cholera and traveller's diarrhea. Not to mention the malaria tablets - which we all decided to skip anyway, having heard some of the possible side effects from taking it - we weren't going into too much bush anyway. Then for some more literature (Insight guide to Vietnam), a map, disinfectant foam, insect repellant, zip-off pants etc, all of which came from the backpacker's paradise shop - Nomaden.

Visas were next in line - and our country does not have an embassy, so we had to contact the closest embassy, which was in Stockholm, and send our passports by mail as well as the money for the handling there. The price for the visa was around €40. We used Travelhouse for ordering air tickets - they were very helpful and service oriented. The tickets were around €1000 per person - the cheapest tickets were already unavailable at our time of ordering, which was 4 months in advance.

Time for...the trip!
June 23rd has arrived, and the day starts at 5 am in the morning - a veeery long journey lies ahead. Two taxi trips and one bus trip just to get to the airport - Norwegian infrastructure at its best! The other option was of course train..but that would still be two separate legs as well as a taxi ride. The relatively new Gardermoen airport is quite nice, spacious and thankfully, silent. Our chosen airline was Cathay Pacific, which meant our route would first go to London (2 hours) via Hong Kong (10-11 hours) and finally Saigon (2 hours). Heathrow was a large airport, which was of course to be expected, but not very pretty or pleasant at all.

Hong Kong International Airport was quite different - huge, airy, silent, and with shiny tiled floors that were clean enough to arrange a picnic on. The main hall was vast, stretching on for something like a kilometre. The airport itself is built on an artificial island, since the mainland does not have enough space for it. The airport in Saigon (Tan Son Nhat) was better than expected..I think. Since there was still daylight when we landed, I managed to catch a glimpse or two of the classical Vietnam - palm trees and a girl in a lovely white dress riding a motorcycle (which has replaced the bicycle) - the white dress being the Vietnamese girls' national costume, called o di - very nice indeed!

Saigon...and culture shock!
We have arrived in Saigon..and by the time we were through the immigration control for visa checking, luggage fetching and so on, it was already dark outside. The sky was flashing lightning here and there - after all, the rainy season had started, but luckily there was no rain to welcome us. Outside the airport, it was quite crowded, and it only took a few seconds before the first eager taxi drivers tried to capture us, but we already had arranged for being picked up by family relatives. Uncle #9 had fetched a quite big Mercedes van including driver. Family members, including children, are often referred to using numbers (in increasing order of year of birth) instead of names since they are often quite numerous - but they start numbering at 2, not 1, of course ;)

The taxi trip itself was an experience that has etched into my memory; the first meeting with Vietnam's largest city in the evening, where it seemed as if every single citizen was outside in the traffic at one time, which would be somewhere around 5-8 million people depending on who you ask..and where you draw the borders for the city. The greater area of Saigon is around 2000 square kilometres, compared to for example London, which is 1500 square kilometres. Back to the taxi trip..the streets were absolutely packed with motorcycles mostly, some cars, as well as a bunch of people on the pavements. At first, it seems unbelievably chaotic, because traffic rules are pretty much nonexistant - if there is room for one more motorcycle, then there is room for one more..and one more..and so on. Horns are used frequently to say the least - actually this is the most important part of any motorised vehicle - it is illegal to drive if it doesn't work. Another uncle (#6) tagged along on his own motorcycle, and we were always quite surprised to see that he was still alive in the chaos.

We later experienced that if regular traffic rules had applied here, there would probably be a non-moving queue most of the day and evening. Small vehicles have to give way for bigger vehicles..and the bigger the vehicle, the louder the horn - some of the buses had some very annoying horns that took their toll on our ears.

After a drive of less than 10 km, which took almost an hour, we arrived at our place in Saigon - a local guesthouse in the back alley of a back alley with no name, just displaying a sign outside saying 'rooms'. My room was quite small although the bed was big - I barely had enough space for my suitcase beside it. It was also equipped with air condition, a fan, a small refrigerator and a stamp-sized television. The air condition was pretty well hidden from me the first night - I didn't know I had one until after a rather sleepless night of listening to a fan at full speed, sounding more or less like a helicopter.

The first days in Saigon
The first culture shock is over...time for the next! It is very common for houses and smaller hotels or guesthouses in Vietnam to be quite narrow and tall. Our guesthouse was a bit wider than most houses and almost a maze of rooms, passages, walkways and twisting stairs leading to the top - an outdoor patio! This would serve as our breakfast room for these days, and we had quite a good view of a small part of the city from here. They place reflective water tanks on top of houses, and the heat from the sun warms it up - et voil, free hot water! Breakfast varied from hot rice noodle soup (not too exciting at 7 am) to baguettes and bananas (a better choice).

My room was $8 per night including breakfast, so I wasn't complaining. From the top of our "Rooms house" we saw one of Vietnam's biggest hotels, the immense New World Hotel - a leviathan with 552 rooms - up-to-date prices are around $100 per room per night including breakfast(!)

We used the first two or three days for checking out the local fun-waterworld, eating a lot outside, and going to one of the largest markets, Ben Thanh (Ch Bn Thnh). This market occupied a full city block, where the inner square was a free-market for private vendors, while the outer edge was occupied by government owned shops. The difference between these, we found out after shopping in the wrong place, was that the private markets were open for haggling, which was fair enough, but we were never able to obtain the low prices of the government shops anyway, where all prices were fixed - much simpler! As a travelling group of a few people - around 10 or so - we were always attractive as customers in the local "restaurants", which were just foodstalls with various dishes on offer - but the food was really good. Once we stopped at one of these in the private market area, it took a few seconds for the locals to arrange tables and chairs for us - an invitation to say the least, but the speed and efficiency was incredible. There seemed to be some sort of co-operation between these private establishments as well, since we could order something they didn't have on the menu, and they would just fetch it from their neighbours instead. Outside the market, we were saddened to see a lot of beggars hanging around - one of them had lost both lower legs and was "walking around" on his knees with his arms for support.

We also visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which was probably a more pleasant experience than the War Remnants Museum (renamed from Museum of American War Crimes in order to secure better trading relationships).

There are around 3 million motorcycles in Saigon, and in the evenings, especially on Sundays, when most people have the day off, everybody seem to be outside at the same time. One evening, we visited one of the finer establishments, a French-inspired caf which served some delicious cakes. Here, we also observed a strange date - two young guys dating two girls, one of the guys was asleep in his chair, the other had his back turned on his date and was talking in his cellphone for most of the evening, while the girls were trying to keep from seeming obviously uncomfortable.

Onwards to Da Lat
Time went fast in Saigon, and on the 27th we were already bound for our next destination - Da Lat, nicknamed City of Eternal Spring, a mountain resort city at 1500 metres above sea level, originally founded in 1897 by the Frenchman Alexandre Yersin, and now housing around 130.000 inhabitants. Our 300 km drive to Vietnam's Central Highlands took some 5-6 hours - not too bad, considering traffic and slow lorries on the winding, hilly road. On the way, we made a stop in a pretty remote area, where only a handful of people made their "fortune" by selling ice cream from an outdoor freezer - something which looked quite out of place in the hot and humid countryside. This didn't seem to be an often used stop by western people, since they found us to be quite exotic looking and "so tall!"

Once we arrived, the first thing that struck us here was the abundance of pine trees - seldom at this latitude. Because of the height, the average temperature is much lower than most of the country, summer temperatures are a "freezing" 26C, and because of this, locals put on a lot of clothes - we passed a tollgate on the way in the evening, and they were wearing thick jackets, long trousers, boots and woolen caps! The city itself was very nice, neatly arranged on the gently rolling hills, complete with artificial lakes, a golf course, a copy of the Eiffel Tower and, being a honeymoon resort, a park aptly named 'Valley of Love'. During our two days in Da Lat, we went for an elephant ride - quite a neat experience, especially when the "driver" suddenly decided to take a hike and leave me to do the steering! This was of course a part of the tour, since the elephant turned out to know the way home. This area was very scenic, including a short boat ride to get to the elephant area, as well as dining in floating straw huts. Vietnam has 70 ethnic minority groups, many of these living in remote hilly areas. One of the evenings we visited one of the local hill tribes, a neat arrangement which our local driver had prepared. These people were clearly different from ethnic Vietnamese, both in face and build - they also explained that this was in fact a matriarchial society, which meant among other things that the women chose their husband. They didn't seem too interested in us though :) They prepared some excellent food and gave us a traditional song-and-dance show, included was also one of the local customs of drinking rice wine together with a local.

We also visited the Linh Phuoc Chinese Pagoda - a nice buddhist temple area built as recently as 1956 on top of a hill with some great views of the landscape. This also seemed to be something of a tourist trap, since we were goaded onto a couple of horses and brought up to the top for the ridiculous price of $2 per person (yes, expensive, since we didn't try to haggle beforehand - a lesson well learned). In the temple itself, we took off our shoes (as is usual) before entering, only to find a lone monk in the company of three huge bronze statues, weighing in at 4000 kg each (the statues, not the monk!) He was quite helpful and waved and pointed for us to line up in front of the statues while he took our picture.

Still more sightseeing - visiting the Hang Nga Treehouse, locally nicknamed Crazy House, designed by a rather eccentric local woman, the daughter of a former Vietnamese president, who just happened to be selling tickets at the counter herself! Her relations were the only reason that this building project even existed in a country with rather conservative laws. This house is, in addition to being a museum, also a (rather expensive) hotel. If you book a room here, it will of course be left out from the regular tours ;) The rooms are individually furnished to say the least, and there is no straight line or square anywhere. The rooms bear names such as Termite Room, Bamboo Room, Bear Room and so on, and are decorated in these various themes. The house is difficult to describe - it looks like a collection of thick, gnarled trees high on drugs, and could just as well be inspired from a Grimm fairy tale or Alice in Wonderland. The tour winds and twists its way up and down crooked stair cases and turns and leaves you quite disoriented after a while. At our time of visiting, it was still being added to.

We visited a sewing institute, named XQ Embroideries, as well, and the work done here is truly impossible to describe, but has to be seen to be believed - imagine a huge tapestry which took 15 girls 4 years to make, considering their efficiency. The prices here were quite steep - definitely for western people or rich locals. Here, we were also introduced to a local speciality - artichoke tea - it has a rather strange taste, especially since you never get sugar with it. We even had time to visit a discotheque, and it was quite an experience to see the locals partying - here, I was asked by a man if I "was alone". I later found out that he was probably offering me a "date" - I never found out anyway :)

Nha Trang
The next leg of our journey started on the 30th of June, destination Nha Trang - a coastal city with around 300.000 inhabitants, well known for its 4 kilometre long beach. The road wound slowly down the mountains, and at one point we stopped for a scenic view over the landscape. At this spot there was quite a lot of food and drinks sellers, most of them children. Most of the stuff cost $1, maybe because it is more easy for the natives to learn this..some time during the journey I wondered if that is the first word they learn instead of "mommy"..."one dollar!" As we reached the main coastal road at Phan Rang, we were supposed to stop at a well known tourist attraction, the Po Klong Garai Cham Towers. These belong to the old Cham culture, which lasted from the 2nd century AD until the 17th century. Of the remaining religious shrines from this culture, Po Klong Garai is one of the most well preserved. However, our driver had obviously misunderstood the location of them - I could see them in the distance myself but did not know where the road to them took off, and we ended up instead at some very small towers. I tried to explain that we had driven past them already, but since it was a few km back and I was the only one interested in seeing them, the majority decided that it was not given priority over the coming World Cup soccer final, although this was still three hours away even after we had reached our destination. Our 200 km journey took some 4-5 hours, and once there, I ended up at a different hotel, since the one we decided to try our luck in (named Thanh Thanh Hotel) offered me a very low standard single room compared to the others. After a short walk, I found another hotel (Sao Mai 2 - hotels are certainly not far between when close to the beach area) where I was offered a very nice, large room with shiny tiles for $10 per night. I noticed a gecko (a small lizard) in my room one of the days - it must have come through one of the windows, which I noticed had been inserted the wrong way, so it was impossible to close - not a good combination with the air condition!

The weather in Nha Trang was great all the time, and the next day was all clear and a blue sky was dominating the horizon. We decided to go on a boat trip, which is one of the favourite pastimes for tourists when they visit the city. For $6 we got an 8 hour trip, which took us to several islands, a coral reef, and included a wonderful lunch as well as half a boatload of fresh, delicious fruit (consisting of banana, mango, pineapple, lychee, rambutan and the native 'dragon fruit', everything fresh and cut straight from the tree, which results in a taste that is uncomparable to what we import ourselves), and on one occasion - wine served on a floating bar!

There were lots of places to eat along the beach, one of the better ones was the Sailing Club. Here, we went several times, and they had a very varied menu as well as a wide selection of drinks (I had my first ever Singapore Sling and Long Island Ice Tea here). One evening a significant event happened in the group - a proposal! And the answer was...yes ;)

The next day I got a treat from the headmistress of the group: they were going for some more swimming, sunbathing and diving, and I was given our van complete with driver and uncle #4, who accompanied us on most of our journey. Having already read about the city in my Lonely Planet guide, I knew where I wanted to go: first and foremost to a renewed possibility to see some old buildings, namely the Po Nagar Cham Towers. These were some 6 km from the city centre itself, but easy to reach with the van. The towers were definitely exotic looking up close - they looked like something of a cross between a Hindu temple and the ones found in Angkor in Cambodia.  They were even in the process of restoring them - a good thing, since these were also quite old, dating back to the 7th-11th century AD. The next stop was the Long Son Pagoda, a very nice temple complete with a 14-metre Buddha statue on top of a hill. Climbing 176 steps takes its toll when the temperature passes the 35C mark...I don't think I would even like to knowPretty Tien!  what the temperature was in the sun but it was certainly more or less scorching - still, it was well worth the climb. Two local "guides" showed me around, they were of course not official guides, but children earning a living from tourists - I bought some postcards from them once the tour was over. I fixed lunch on my own this evening, at a restaurant called La Louisiane. Here was also one of the local diving clubs, where I met a lovely young lady by the name of Tien at the information stall. After some conversation, I had learned a few more words in Vietnamese (I already knew a few words before we went there) - who knows if I might be able to impress the locals?

The next day, my classmate's brother and I went in search of a hall in which to play badminton - I play quite a lot at home, but it turned out to be under extremely challenging conditions: the intense heat, barefoot in sandals and using a shuttlecock that did not obey the usual laws of flight, both due to poor construction as well as the heat and humidity in the air. Several local people were also playing, and we ended up joining a few girls for mixed doubles and combination matches. The girls asked us if we would come back the next day, but since this was our last day in the city, we said we were leaving. Instead we ended up being asked out to dinner (I am not really sure who asked who, since the conversation was in Vietnamese), which was something of a surprise, since local customs say you cannot take a girl out to dinner unless you are getting serious in your relationship. Maybe new times are coming..anyway dinner was on, and we went out with four of them the same evening. We also went to another place for dessert - just to honour the usual tradition for a permissible not-so-serious date.

Hoi An
The days in Nha Trang went by fast, and on the 4th July, it was time to go to our next destination - Hoi An, a small town with around 70.000 inhabitants. This town was called Faifo in the 16th century, at which time there was a lot of trade with Japan. The trip was 510 km, and it took 14 hours to get there on roads that varied from motorway class to bumpy construction areas more suited for jeeps - we passed several rickety wooden makeshift bridges on our way, as well as what we later named "the quacking motorcycle" - a guy with a big load of ducks crammed inside a cage.

For the first time, we experienced some very long stretches without civilization - considering the population density and our experience so far, we felt as if there were people all over.
On a day trip such as this, it would be a very bad idea to have a stomach in uprising, but I did manage to bring that along as a souvenir for a bit of the journey. The solution was to stop at a rather remote spot where they at least had a toilet, and I got to try the famous hole-in-the-floor version.
Finally we reached our destination, and not a moment too soon we felt, since our driver's eyes resembled those of a deep-sea fish recently dragged up to the surface. We went to a hotel which we later found out had a very scenic location next to the main river, but we didn't see this at the time of our arrival, since it was dark long before we got there. The only problem was that the room smelled a bit strange and musty, so we split up again and some of us went to another hotel, whose name I remember as 'Vinh Hung 3'. They do not have their own home page, however, here is a link to one of the many sites that features information about it. This hotel was the best I had the pleasure of visiting on our trip (we did not choose any luxury hotels, by the way), and I paid a mere $17 for each night including breakfast. There was no view, however, since the window only had about 20 cm clearance to the wall of another hotel which was being built at the time..and they do start labouring pretty early in Vietnam (around 5 in the morning) so it was no problem getting up early for breakfast, which was quite extensive compared to what I was used to earlier during the trip. They also had frozen youghurt there - a delicious experience and also very good for keeping your stomach in good order when travelling in such far away places.
The hotel also had its very own swimming pool on the top, offering a fabulous relaxation space and views over the town. On the first night we went up there and relaxed for quite some time, and the staff even extended its opening time by one hour just for us - in addition to bringing us our ordered drinks up there. What more could one wish for at the moment?

Hoi An is well known for its around 200 shredder shops, and we spent half a day visiting one of these and ordering various clothes. Since we had split up, we were three who went to a particular shop, and I had a suit ($40 including white shirt), two gecko shirts ($12 each since we asked in particular for this motive), two silk sleeping bags ($4 each) and a couple of boxer shorts ($4 each) made. They were all done by the next day. The owner of the shop seemed quite pleased with us as customers (no small thanks to the one who knew the language :) and invited us out for a rather extensive dinner complete with white wine made in Da Lat!
In addition to clothes shopping, we went for a swim one of the days - the beach there was also very nice and popular.

Day 3 and it was time for a boat trip on the Hoi An river - I noticed in the distance Cat's Tooth mountain, which I knew was close to the most famous sight outside town. We were supposed to go there after the boat trip, but when we came back, it turned out to be too late in the day to go there. At this time, I realised that if I wanted to see the major sights, I would have to go on my own, since I was the only one interested in these cultural sights. I left the group immediately and started a walk around town, which would actually lead me to most of the major sights the town is known for. The old town part is quite nice and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sight. The old Japanese bridge is also a sight not to be missed, although it probably looks nicer when there is water in the small stream beneath it. The bridge was built in 1593 by the Japanese trading community in order to link it with the town quarter on the other side of the stream. According to legend, there once lived an enormous monster called Cu, whose head was in India, its tail in Japan and its body in Vietnam. This bridge was built on the monster's weak point (Achilles' heel), killing it. The temple located inside the bridge itself was built to pray for its soul.

The town features several temples and family chapels, many of these are accessible, but you have to buy a ticket to get into any of them. This ticket will allow you into one of the following: one museum, one assembly hall, one old house and the Japanese bridge. The ticket costs 50.000 dong (less than 3 €), however I decided to buy just one, even though I wanted to see more than one assembly hall - having seen one which was very nice (Phuc Kien).

On my planning of the next day, I faced a dilemma. We only had one day left before we were supposed to leave the town, and I wanted to see both the My Son temple sanctuary and the Marble Mountains. I decided to go for the My Son sanctuary, and mentioned this at the hotel I stayed in. They then wrote me up on a list, and I was to be picked up at 8 next morning. This system works very well - the transportation bus drives around town to the various hotels picking up people, so you don't have to go to where the bus starts from.
The ride turned out to be quite bumpy and long - it took 2 hours to drive the 45 km to the end of the road. From here, it was a short walk to a new stop and a wait in line for jeeps to take us the remaining km or so to the actual temple area. Waiting here was quite taxing - the sun was scorching hot and it was humid, and the insect buzz was so loud I almost wish I had ear protection with me.

The My Son sanctuary dates back to the 4th century AD, and is by far the most important Cham site in Vietnam. The ancient Champa kingdom had this as one of their main religious centres until about 1300. Heavily influenced by Hindu culture, many of the temples built were dedicated to Shiva. Most of the site's around 70 buildings were bombed and destroyed by the Americans during the war, and only 20 escaped total devastation. On one of the inscribed stones, there were clear marks of bullet damage as well. In addition to this, the area around the site is land mined, and signs are put up warning tourists from leaving the marked pathways.

The site turned out to be a fabulous experience, and it was very cool to see green growth on the old buildings - at least the few that escaped the Americans' precision bombing. The site was believed to be a sanctuary for the North Vietnamese army, and rumour or not, it did not stop the opposing force from more or less destroying this ancient cultural site.

There...and back again
As all days, those in Hoi An went by fast, and on the 8th July it was already time to leave...first of all back to Saigon on airplane via Da Nang, which was quite an improvement when it came to travel efficiency. We had already split up into smaller groups, so some went back to Saigon, some went to Nha Trang again (both via plane) while some took the car back. I spent a few days on my own in Nha Trang, which was quite relaxing.


Saigon = wedding!
A return trip to Saigon was of course necessary as we had all been invited to my mate's cousin's wedding - and quite a wedding it was too. I only attended the actual wedding party, which took place on the night before the ceremony itself, but it was an experience along the line of other experiences. First, a lot of people had been invited - in fact, so many that the last ones to attend sat in the hallway facing the street - it seems as if it is important to invite as many people as possible to these weddings, as it may be a sign of popularity - whether or not you go bankrupt from it. Second, the dinner was overwhelming, and I think I counted six courses, even including some dried meat that very closely resembled a dried raw meat type common in my home country ("spekemat")!

We were then taught how to raise our glasses in salute to the newly weds, and we did so by counting to three in the native tongue: mot - hai - ba - (and finally) YO!

After the party was over, we decided to go to a local bar to have a drink (or two) but this turned out to be easier said than done. Hard restrictions were in place, and it took us a while to find a bar that was open after midnight, but on the way we passed the nicely flood-lit town hall (known as the People's Republic Committee) with the nations great son sitting in front - Ho Chi Minh.

There was time for a visit to the Mekong delta - quite an area to explore if you want to take it all in, you can get everything from a short day trip (lasting 12 hours) to a 5-day trip. We went for the short version, and did indeed experience a piece of life on the huge river, which in this area has already split up into 5, and still, it felt like cruising on a lake! We visited a boat construction facility, and a couple of candy producers with some yummy tasting and shopping - the speed at which they worked was the most impressive though. Most of the candy was being made from either rice or coconuts.

We also made a visit to Vung Tau, the home town of the family that I went with - it lies 125 km south of Saigon almost at the southernmost tip of the country, and is easily reached via either a good 4-lane road (around 2 hours by bus) or the VinaExpress hydrofoil (around 1 1/4 hours). The old house they lived in had been changed into a guest house, and we stayed here - I am sure it felt weird for them to walk along the narrow back alleys where they had lived so many years ago! The town is not much visited by tourists, and was at least at the time pleasantly slow-going and quiet compared to the other ones we had been to.

After nearly 4 weeks of living in a suitcase, it was time to turn the nosewheel towards home..on the plane back it was somewhat easier to get a bit of sleep, as the excitement had given way to a lot of impressions. But all in all a quite successful first big journey!

Food & drink
During this journey I tried rabbit, dove, squid, frog and snail-in-a-shell to name the most exotic dishes..however, the fried Won Ton in Hoi An was definitely one of the best, in addition to a chicken dish we were served in Saigon which we ordered so many times that they actually ran out of it...! Most of the food in Vietnam is based on rice noodles and is less hot than what you will find in e.g. Thailand or India. In fact, dishes are quite mildly if at all spiced, as the idea is often to focus on the flavour from the added vegetables, of which coriander is a very common sight.

Most of the country is subtropical and is warm all year around. Since the distance between north and south is quite big, there are some differences though, and the south enjoys a year-round hot and humid climate. Temperatures may drop somewhat in the north during winter, while in the highest mountains (also in the northern part) temperatures may drop as low as the freezing point. The warmest time of the year is from March - August, when it is summer, and rainy season is around the time we visited. Rainy season may not necessarily mean eternal downpours though - it is usually one or more seriously heavy showers which will hurt your ears if you are standing inside a shed or something similar with a metal roof. At times, longer lasting rainfalls may flood streets and cause difficulties getting around, as sometimes roads will collapse. Always bring a potent sunscreen, and always use it..the southernmost part of the country is only 12 degrees north of the Equator.

Only a few people will not think of the Vietnam War as they hear the name of the country. In Vietnam, it is more commonly known as the American War, however. After a hundred years of french occupation, which also included an invasion from Japan during the second World War, the French withdrew from the country in 1954, and it was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Shortly after this, disagreements over elections and reunification occurred, as the northern, communist ruled part of the country was backed up by China and the Soviet Union, while the south was backed up by the U.S.
Military advisors were sent in, and after an attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the conflict started, and more than 500.000 U.S. troops were sent in (although war was never declared at any time). The war also spread into Cambodia and Laos, as the supply lines for the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and VC (Viet Cong - the South Vietnamese communist militia) went through these countries towards South Vietnam. To make a long story short - withdrawal of U.S. forces began in 1973, while in 1975, the North made their final invasion and overtook the capital of the south - Saigon. The country was then reunified under communist rule in 1976.
During the war, chemical defoliants were used (most notably the dioxin-containing Agent Orange) by the U.S. forces - an estimated total of 76.000 m of these chemicals were dropped, destroying 15.000 km of forest and crops. These substances continue to poison their environment as of today, and a 2006 estimate by the Vietnamese government claims that there are more than 4 million victims of the 'agent' (most being children born with deformities), yet the U.S. government denies any link between the two.
An estimated 58.000 U.S. troops were killed during the war, while the total death toll of Vietnamese is unknown - numbers vary from 1.5 to 5 million, most of which were civilians. One of the greatest atrocities that was later known to the public was the My Lai massacre, where 347 Vietnamese civilians (mostly elders, women and children) were killed by a U.S. troop. Many of these were in addition tortured and raped. A U.S. helicopter managed to stop the massacre, thereby saving the few remaining people. A U.S. officer declared at a later time that every large (U.S.) unit had their My Lai incident. The lieutenant in charge of and ordering the massacre blamed his superiors for the incident, and was rewarded with 3 1/2 years of house arrest.
Life in the south was unsafe for many western friendly citizens, and many were persecuted and/or killed in the aftermath as well - this was the start of the era of the 'boat refugees'.
After all these events and more than a hundred years of occupation and war, it is amazing to see how the country is able to literally rise from the ashes, and also how they manage to focus on the future and work for the greater good of the nation - hats off for that!

Money and prices
Vietnam is definitely not an expensive country. The above mentioned prices likely haven't increased much since then, and you are bound to get a lot for your dollar - which at the time of our visiting was worth 15.000 of the local currency - dong. There are ATZ's in the major cities, while in the smaller ones you may withdraw money from a post office - look for a signpost that says 'Buu Dien' (but at the time we were there we had to take half the amount in dong and the other half in dollars - for reasons unknown). Shops that sell gold are the ones to go to if you want to exchange your hard currency (bring dollars if so).

Visas - and don't forget your passport!
Most foreign citizens require a visa for entry to Vietnam. Check with your country's embassy well beforehand - if your country does not have one, then often a neighbouring country will cover yours as well. Thorough information about filling in visas and sending or delivering personally is found via the embassies. A visa usually requires you to have the address that you plan to arrive to, which means you will have to reserve a room at your first destination, and supply this address. The yellow slip which is a copy of some papers you fill out on the plane is your ticket out of the country - make sure you do not lose it!
Hotel staff are required by law to register you via your passport, and they will also keep your passport at the reception desk for the duration of your stay - this is normal and quite ok, but do remember to make a photocopy of your passport including your approved visa and keep this securely on you at all times, as you may be stopped by police on the street and asked for identification. Make sure that you get your passport back when checking out from the hotel - in case they forget (that happened to me once, and they actually drove after me to the airport to deliver it!)
When leaving the country, there is a $12 (as of 2002) airport departure tax - this has to be in hard U.S. cash, so make sure you put this aside.

Culture - including do's and dont's
Language: english is widely used in the country, and many people will know a bit and understand you - in fact, it is easier to get through with english here than in for example Japan or China. Some of the older people will possibly only know french as foreign language, so it won't hurt if you know a few phrases.

Haggling: this is quite normal in most privately run establishments. However, government run shops usually have fixed prices, so there is no need to try out your bargaining skills here. We experienced buying a shirt that originally cost 130.000 dong for 90.000, then found the same shirt in a government run shop for 70.000 dong. Also note that in some places haggling is less usual. I experienced this once in Hoi An where the shop clerk almost seemed offended as I tried to get two shirts for the price of one. In a tailor's shop, if you buy a lot of stuff, you should be able to get a discount off the total - or like in our case - the owner will be so satisfied with your order that he invites you out to dinner with wine :)

Physical contact: this is quite ok between the same gender, but somewhat more restricted cross-sex-wise, at least according to traditional culture. Younger generations may be somewhat more liberal.

One dollar!: at the time we went there, we sometimes had the feeling everything cost one dollar, or that this is the most commonly known english word combination. Kids down to the age of 4-5 years work as sales people, and even do a good job at in other countries like this, a polite 'no thank you' or 'khng' in the native tongue will work (even though you may not feel like being polite after sending away the two-hundred-and-thirty-fourth-thousand seller...but remember, in this part of the world getting angry equals losing your face - a fate worse than death :)

Traffic do's and dont's: As a foreigner, you can rent a bicycle or motorbike and use it to get around. Be prepared for living hell though, as traffic is unbelievably chaotic at its worst (sunday evenings). In general, there are no rules - there is always room for another vehicle in between two others, unless you are claustrophobic. Traffic lights are sometimes respected, and sometimes not. If you want to drive a motorbike yourself, it might be a good idea to spend some time in an elevated position and watch the traffic pattern for some time so as to try to learn how it works - good luck anyway. As a pedestrian, you will find few if any crossings, so here's the trick to crossing a street (which are only clear at night time): walk in a determined and slightly slow way straight across - do not slow down or speed up or run - traffic will then aim in front of you or behind you to keep up the 'flow' of things - but remember to look in the direction the traffic is coming from. One in our group nearly had an incident due to breaking this rule of thumb (trying to run). This mostly applies to bikes and motorbikes - do not expect cars, lorries or buses to stop for you. And remember - the most important part of any motored vehicle is its horn, and it is widely used - so be prepared for that too (and the ones found on buses are annoyingly sharp and loud).

Safety: Vietnam is a relatively safe country to travel in, even if you are a woman travelling alone, mostly due to the teachings of Buddhism. Also, crime rate is pretty low thanks to a very strict government and lots of police around.

North and South: due to recent history, you may find hospitality to differ between the north and the south parts of the country, as many in the north have a hate-filled relationship and memories of western or white people. You will not find hostility, but perhaps at times more indifference and less hospitality when compared to the south, where people will even wave at you as you drive by.

Travel: getting around inside the country's borders is pretty simple. There is one major road that leads from  Saigon to Hanoi, and most cities or places of interest are along this road (Da Lat, the Mekong delta and the mountains in the north being an exception). Infrastructure is continuously getting better, but there are huge variations - you can expect a wide road where the landscape speeds by, and then 500 metres of a horrible bumpeti-bump patch, makeshift wooden bridges etc. Mountain passes tend to result in slow going as well, due to lorries moving at walking speed. Do not expect working  seat belts - I never saw any being used during the whole trip. If a (private/unofficial) taxi does not have air conditioning, and the driver hears you mentioning this, he may point at the side window and say 'air condition'.
It is possible to buy a bus ticket for the Saigon - Hanoi stretch, then hop on and off whenever and wherever you want to underways. A railroad also covers the same stretch (around 1900 km).
If you want to go on a day trip to somewhere, you may visit the travel arranger, or easier still - talk to the people at the reception of your hotel. Be prepared for an early rise, as most tours start at 8:00 at the very latest, and the bus or other means of transport will usually pick you up right outside your hotel door.

Places to see that we didn't get to/go to:
- the previously mentioned Po Klong Garai Cham Towers at Phan Rang, around 300 km northeast of Saigon
- Hu (the old imperial city with several sights, including the emperor fortress (also known as the Forbidden City), the tombs of several emperors, and Perfume River with sights such as Thien Mu pagoda, 110 km north of Da Nang
- Tay Ninh, which houses an impressive religious structure, around 100 km northwest of Saigon - main seat for the Cao Dai religion (around 2.5 million followers)
- Cu Chi, the extensive tunnel network used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam war - parts of  it enlarged for tourists to still be able to creep through. Do not enter if claustrophobic! Around 50 km from Saigon
- Hanoi, the capital in the north (around 3.5 million inhabitants), with a nice lake/park area and several old streets bearing the names of the trade profession of the artisans
- Ha Long Bay or Vinh Ha Long, the beautiful 'Bay of the descending dragon', with thousands of tree covered limestone cliffs rising straight up from the sea, around 170 km northeast of Hanoi
- Sapa and the mountainous area of the north with several minorities


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