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Several visits to Vietnam: pictures, observations, notes and thoughts

Created 2008/07/18, modified 2017/01/08
Feedback welcome, email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com
The photos in this page have been compressed for faster loading – this has reduced definition and quality to some extent.
The originals in most cases were 5 or 6MP from Canon Powershot S2 or S3 IS cameras.

Contents

On this page...
Mekong Delta
Saigon
Dalat
Nha Trang
Quy Nhon
Hoi An
Danang
Hue
Halong Bay
Hanoi
Sapa
Index

Other pages...

SE Asia 2011
Vietnam 2011
Home
 
Halong sunset
Vietnam's unique Halong Bay
 
Saigon temple
Temple interior in Saigon's Chinatown

Introduction

The Vietnamese people had many years of war in the twentieth century: the Japanese, then the French, then the 'American War' (they call it that, to Australians like me it was the Vietnam War, to the USians it was the Vietnam Conflict). War was followed by years of corrupt and repressive communist maladministration. However, since the 1980s Vietnam has been economically advancing as private enterprise was first grudgingly tolerated, then allowed, later encouraged. In the 1990s the country started opening up to foreign visitors from the relatively wealthy West; in the first decade of the twenty-first century the stream became a flood.

But Vietnam has not (yet) been spoiled by all the attention, and for those who want to get away from the foreign tourists there are many places that are well worth visiting and where 'white' faces, if not rare, are out of the ordinary and where the local kids treat us as a novelty.

My wife and I have visited Vietnam three times, a few days in October 2004, about a month in October and November of 2006, and another three weeks in June and July of 2008. At one time or another we have travelled by land (bus, minibus or train) all the way from Cantho in the Mekong delta in the far south to Lao Cai on the Chinese border in the north.

The Vietnamese people are exceptionally friendly. You will occasionally find one who wants to take advantage of you, but to get a surly or rude response from anyone in Vietnam is very rare. (Some taxi drivers in Saigon are learning, and some are not to be trusted.)

Vietnam is a beautiful country. Much of it is mountainous, and much is flat coastal deltaic plane; there seems little in between.

The climate is variable, from hot and humid in the lowlands of the south, warm in the central highlands, warm to hot seasonally at Hanoi, and cool seasonal in the northern highlands around Sapa. The country is entirely in the tropics, so visitors from the temperate regions are much more likely to suffer from excessive heat than excessive cold anywhere.

This page will cover the bits that we visited starting from the south and moving northward.

Building

One contrast between Vietnam and Australia that struck us was in the building that is happening in both countries. In Australia money is going into mines, new houses, pleasure boats, recreational four-wheel-drives and caravans. In Vietnam the money is going into building new roads, bridges, factories, and businesses.

The implications for the future economic potential of both nations are obvious.

Place names

Vietnamese break multisyllabic place names into single syllables; eg. The Western usage, Hanoi becomes Ha Noi, Danang becomes Da Nang. I have probably used both styles on this page.
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Mekong boat
Boating lady on the delta
 
Mekong Houses
Houses on the Delta, note how little they are above the water level. Flooding must be a part of the way of life.
 
Floating market
A couple of the many boats at a floating market on the Mekong delta in Cantho.

Mekong Delta

Flat, low-lying, and with interconnecting waterways, the Delta is one of the most fertile and densely populated places on Earth. (Of course its people will suffer as the sea level rises, see the note on climate change and Vietnam on this page.)
Denece and I had a (US$20) two-day tour of the Mekong Delta on our first (2004) visit to Vietnam. The tour included travel in boats in the Saigon area and the Can Tho area, as well as busses between those places. There were visits to various places of interest such as a coconut candy 'factory' and a rice noodle 'factory', and a short performance of Vietnamese traditional music and song was included.
The weather was hot, but the boats had protection from the direct sunlight, and from the occasional torrential downpour (which lowered the temperature for a while).
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  Scooter load
Four on a scooter is not an unusual sight anywhere in a Vietnamese city, although not easy to capture on a photo.
 
Intersection
Crossing the busier streets in Ho Chi Minh can be a bit daunting until you get used to it.
 
Market
A very small part of a market in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh. All the larger cities in Vietnam have very well stocked markets where prices are very low and, it seems, you can buy almost anything. Some of the most interesting, and cheapest, eating is available in the markets, although language can be a major problem.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Commonly called Saigon outside of Vietnam, but officially Ho Chi Minh City, this is the biggest city in the country and the commercial hub. (Officially, Saigon is a relatively small section of Hi Chi Minh City.)
You can pay a lot for accommodation, or you can get a very pleasant and comfortable air conditioned double room with en-suite bathroom and toilet for around Aust$20 per night (including breakfast). We stayed at Hotel 64 in both 2004 and 2006.
General shopping opportunities are probably Vietnam's best, or at least most extensive, in Saigon.
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Vegetarian Restaurant
A part of the excellent vegetarian restaurant Phien Tinh Tien, 17 Huynh Thuc Khang street, Dalat


Restaurant de Famille
Vintage motorbike in Restaurant de Famille; one of many restaurants with excellent food


A bakery photographed from both ends. It was on the river that runs parallel to Phan Dinh Phung street. I just happened to notice the beautiful fresh bread as I walked past the door. It seems to use waste wood as fuel for its ovens.

Delicious fresh bread from a very ordinary looking source.

bakery
bakery


Part of Dalat market. Most of it is in the buildings on the right side of the photo.

Note the pastel colours of the buildings in the background; very typical of Vietnam.

Also interesting is the Araucaria tree; (right of centre) these were fairly common in the Dalat area.

Dalat market


At Dalat Flower Garden

We saw plant scuptures such as this many places around Vietnam. They would be quiet impractical in Australia's low humidity, too hard to stop them drying out.

Dalat Flower Garden

Dalat

Dalat is at an altitude of 1500m. You might think that it would be cool, but in June (summer) it is quite warm during the day; the nights are comfortably cool. We did not have air conditioning in our hotel (Dreams 2), and found that the room was quite comfortable so long as we opened the window for an hour or more in the early evening. See also accommodation.

Dalat is much less on the tourist map of Westerners than the more popular of Vietnamese destinations. On the other hand, it is one of the most popular destinations with Vietnamese holiday makers; and the locals are not silly.
Of all the places Denece and I stayed in Vietnam in 2008, the management of Dreams 2 hotel in (Phan Dinh Phung street) Dalat, Luyen Nguyen and his mother, were the most helpful and it seemed, honest. Both spoke good or workable English, and gave advice that seemed to be aimed to advantage us, rather than them. The breakfasts too, at Dreams, were impossible to fault.

The front door of the hotel was opened at 0600hrs each day. I rise early, and would have liked to go out around 0500hrs. I mentioned this to Luyen early in our stay and he told me that all I had to do was to knock on the door to the foyer and a lad who slept there would let me out. Although I tried this once, I didn't get any response!
There are many interesting places that can be visited both in and around Dalat. There are a number of pagodas, a cable car ride, the Crazy House, several waterfalls, ethnic minority villages, coffee plantations, commercial flower gardens, a short and quaint train journey, a palace of the last king of Vietnam, and other attractions.
We travelled by bus from Dalat to Nha Trang. In the vicinity of Dalat the great majority of the trees were conifers; as we travelled north broad-leaved trees began to dominate.

I inquired in Dalat about the pine trees, thinking that they seemed unlikely to be local natives, but could not get any definite answer. It is possible that they were planted after the USians had denuded all the hills with herbicides during the war.
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Eating (Dalat and elsewhere)

Denece and I ate at many more places than those listed below, but did not make (decipherable) notes on them. The simpler places aiming at the less well-off Vietnamese were extremely cheap by Western standards, and, in our experience, had good food. The more comfortable places, those with a door, air conditioning and with table settings, were more expensive, but still much cheaper than you would pay in any Western country. Language was more likely to be problematic in the simpler places, but one advantage was that the food was more traditionally Vietnamese.

Restaurants in Dalat
NameNotesCost
Vegetarian restaurant Phien Tinh Tien on 17 Huynh Thuc Khang street; near Crazy House Good food, great setting – you can eat in the garden or indoors if you prefer 2 main cources, 2 beers, 82 000VND (~Au$5.50)
Hao Vi Cafe, 219 Phan Dinh Phung Aimed more at locals than foreigners, good food; we ate there often Excellent value
Trong Dong Vietnamese Restaurant, 220 Phan Dinh Phung St. Very good food More expensive than some

Also see the note on Hoang Huy Seafood restaurant in Quy Nhon and the Huu Nghi Restaurant in Hoi An.
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Sunrise
Sunrise on the waterfront at Nha Trang
 
Park scene
In the Nha Trang sea-front park, late afternoon

Nha Trang

On the very long eastern coast, Nha Trang is a very popular beach resort. We visited it in 2006 and 2008.
The beach is sandy and clean, but sometimes the waves can be dumpers and make swimming in the shallows unpleasant and getting beyond the breakers difficult. Still, the hotels are good and many have swimming pools.
Nha Trang is not one of our favourite places, we much preferred the relatively undeveloped Quy Nhon.
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Boats on beach
Boats pulled up on the Quy Nhon beach for maintenance
 
Discussion group
An old bloke's discussion group
 
Getting through the surf
Getting through the surf

Quy Nhon

The part of the beach where the fishing boats are repaired is not where you would want to go swimming. It seems that quite a few people live on the boats, and crap on the beach nearby – one of the facts of life in Asia. There is a much cleaner section of the beach further along to the east.
In July Quy Nhon is hot! From around 1000 to 1400 hours it's best to stay inside with the air conditioner, if you possibly can. When you go out walk slowly, avoid the sun if you can, and have breaks for iced coffee (I found eating the ice from the iced coffee helped to cool me down). The sea is cool, but if your hotel is not very close to the beach you will be just as hot again before you get back.
I swam in Nha Trang at 1630hrs; there were hundreds of people in the water. I swam in Quy Nhon at about 1030hrs, I was the only one in the water in sight. This was at least partly, I suspect, because no-one who doesn't need to be out after 1000hrs would be – it's simply too hot. There were many more swimmers in Quy Nhon at other times of the day.
The best restaurant that Denece and I ate at in Vietnam in 2008 was Hoang Huy Seafood (Nha Hang), 18 Xuan Dieu (next door to Barbaras Kiwi Cafe). The service was unbeatable, prices very low, setting great – a quiet part of the street on the beach front – and the food was top. (Geographic coordinates, N13.77180, E109.24121) Also see eating.
The round basket boats are used to get from the shore to the fishing boats. They seem remarkably well suited for their use; they skim over the water rather than cutting through the water as does a conventions dinghy.
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Hotel
A beautiful hotel (probably out of our price range) in Hoi An.
Vietnamese architecture is much more imaginative and decorative than is Australian.

Accommodation in Vietnam

All but the very cheapest hotels in the lower parts of the country have air conditioned rooms; we didn't have, or need, air conditioning in our room in Dalat (altitude 1500m). Room prices didn't vary greatly across the country. Of course there was hardly any limit to how much you could pay if you wanted to, but, in general, a good room could be had for around Au$25 per night in the more touristy places, going down to Au$10-$18 in the less visited places (like Quy Nhon and Danang).

Breakfast is usually included in the price of the room. This usually means a cooked breakfast if you want one, but generally you eat so much and so well at lunch and dinner you will welcome a light breakfast.

Many hotels provide limited Internet access at no extra charge.

Also see the note about Dreams 2 Hotel in Dalat.
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Boat on Hoi An river
A woman sculling a wooden boat on the Hoi An river in the early morning
 
On the phone
Mobile phones are all the go in Vietnam too! Note that the bloke is smoking and talking on his phone while a woman is doing the work of paddling; this seems typical.
 
Carved panels
Intricate wooden panel in the Trieu Chau Assembly Hall
 
Hoi An
A general view of the Hoi An waterfront in the early morning

Hoi An

Hoi An has at least two main attractions to Western tourists. Shopping for tailor made clothes is probably some of the best in the world, quite probably the best in the world if you consider value for money; and then there is the fascinating and historical architecture. In addition, the food is excellent, a boat tour on the river is well worth-while and can be instructive, and there is a good beach about four kilometres away. (Jellyfish stings can be a problem at the beach.)
We heard while we were there that Hoi An had been added to the UN World Heritage list.
One of the best, and best value, restaurants in Hoi An in our opinion was Huu Nghi Restaurant, 56 Bach Dong Street (on the river).
Hoi An is one of the most tourist developed places in Vietnam.
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Danang kids
Foreigners and cameras are still a novelty in Danang.
 
A narrow quintessentially Vietnamese house across the river from central Dalat. Although narrow, it was long; the length was hidden in this end-on photo. Danang house

Danang

Danang is only 30km from the very touristy town of Hoi An and most of the tourists who visit Hoi An go through Danang. Yet very few of them spend any time in Danang which, consequently, provides a refreshing change from the tourist hordes. The children of Danang are fascinated by Western tourists and their cameras; they love having their photos taken and collapse into giggling helplessness when shown the photos.
Denece and I only had a part of a day in Danang. If we go back to Vietnam we'd like to spend more time there.
We stayed in Xuan Hung hotel, 56 Phan Chu Trihm street. (Very good room, Au$19, including breakfast – but coffee was an extra dollar if you wanted that at breakfast!) It was a fairly short walk from the water-front of the river, where many of the locals walk in the relative coolness of morning and evening.
One minor problem we had was getting out of the hotel early in the morning. We had to wake one of the staff, who was sleeping in the reception area; then he had to go down to the big front roller-door, bang on the door and wake the man who was sleeping on the street in front of the door (the big door could only be opened from the outside).
We ate dinner at a restaurant on the esplanade by the bridge (Nha hang Sao Do, 50 Bach Dang street). The food was excellent, and the menu exotic; it included – if I remember rightly – horse, crocodile, ostrich, camel, and "muscle of cow". Unfortunately we did not record the name of the restaurant.
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Palace
Throne room of the last king of Vietnam
 
Palace grounds
A little of the grounds of one of the Hue palaces
 
Incence sticks
Died sticks ready to coat with incence

Hue

Once the capital of Vietnam, there are more palaces in and around Hue than you can poke a stick at.
Hue is also conveniently close to the Demilitarised Zone of the American War with its restored Vinh Moc tunnels where Vietnamese lived to escape the bombing and several important and historical American war sites.
Gekkos
Gekkos on an illuminated sign in Hue
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Halong boats
This photo was taken near the entrance to Amazing Cave, where hordes of tourists go.
 
Halong mountains
Some of the islands in Amazing Cave area

Halong Bay

Halong Bay (Latitude N20.8°, Longitude E107.1°) is a maze of steep limestone islands in the north-east of the country. It has been given World Heritage status, and is the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam. When Denece and I visited, June 2006, the visitor numbers were being handled without spoiling the area; I hope that remains to be the case.
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Before dawn
The local people walked and exercised around Hoan Kiem Lake in the cool of the early morning
 
Motorbikes on street
Now you see them...
Motorbikes on the street in the evening; they are there throughout the daylight hours too.
 
No motorbikes
Now you don't...
The motorbikes disappear indoors overnight; this photo was taken in the early morning at the same place as the one above.

Hanoi

Vietnam's second-biggest capital and city, Hanoi is where you will probably fly into or out of if you go to the north of the country.

Our first visit to Hanoi was in 2004 and did not give a good first impression of Vietnam. We had dropped in to Hanoi only to change planes on our way to Britain. There were signs in the airport that stated clearly that airport exit taxes did not have to be paid by those who were in transit. Yet we and others found that there was no way we could get through the airport without paying the tax. Did it go into the pockets of corrupt officials? We'll probably never know.

Denece and I went back to Hanoi with our kids (then in their late twenties) in 2006.

Hoan Kiem Lake is my favourite place of Hanoi. I start my day early in the morning. (Especially in a place with a hot climate like Vietnam, it is the best part of the day. Why not make the most of the part of the day that is coolest and most comfortable?) Many of the people of Hanoi (it seems the Vietnamese in general) also make an early start. Before daylight there were hundreds or thousands of Hanoiese walking around Hoan Kiem Lake; mostly in a clockwise direction (if my memory is correct).

Disappearing motorbikes

Another thing that I first noticed in Hanoi (and saw repeated in many other Vietnamese cities) was that the motorbikes that are so numerous on the streets during the day disappear at night. They are either being ridden on the streets or parked on the footpaths during the day, but are brought inside overnight. Two photos on the right show the same bit of street in the evening and again in the early morning. While many Vietnamese were out on foot, it seems that they wait until later before bringing most of the motorbikes out.
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Minority girls
Girls of the Black H'mong ethnic minority in Sapa
 
Tapas
Tapas "Echo Retreat" in the hills of the Sapa region

Sapa

Sapa is in the mountains near the northern border with China.

We got there by night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then minibus up the mountainside. Lao Cai is in a deep and remarkable straight valley that is conveniently positioned on a direct line to Hanoi; the railway, of course, follows the valley.

Sapa is built around rather steep hills and is interesting, among other things, for the several minority ethnic groups who live through the nearby hills and valleys.

In 2006 we stayed a couple of nights at an 'Echo-Retreat' called Tapas that was perhaps a half-hour drive away. Tapas itself was beautiful, comfortable, and very well run; it's only disadvantage was that we were told that we were not supposed, by law, to leave the resort without a local guide. This was apparently another strange law made by the local government with the expressed intention of stopping undesirable interaction between the foreign visitors and the local people, but perhaps really aimed at making the local officials feel that they are in control of where the foreigners can go and what they can do. This may have changed since 2006.
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Coffee
Street stall coffee in Ho Ann
 
Coffee
The coffee in the glass

Vietnamese coffee

It is worth adding a bit to this page to talk about the sort of coffee you are likely to get at street stalls in Vietnam.

In my opinion, the coffee as the Vietnamese have it at the street stalls is even better than that served to tourists at most of the restaraunts, not for the coffee itself, but for the way that it is served.

There was much variation in the serving styles at street stalls (and some of these may well have been regional), the most elaporate was that which I encountered in a stall, near the Japanese bridge on the waterfront if I remember correctly, in Hoi Ann. This is pictured on the right.

The pot is full of green tea, some of which has been poured into a glass; the other glass contains water (the far glass was left behind by another patron). The aluminium cup has hot water, apparently to keep the glass of coffee hot. Tea and water came with the coffee, without me requesting them and at no extra charge; most street stall managers had little English, and I have no Vietnamese.

In the second photo the glass of coffee has been taken out of the aluminium cup; note that the coffee is very strong, the glass is quite small, and that there is a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the coffee glass. Black coffee is an option, I think most Vietnamese drink it white, like this.

Coffee at a street stall was almost always 5000 Dong (Aust$0.40); once in Saigon they asked only 4000D.
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Pottery whistle seller
A seller of pottery whistles in Hoi An photographed in 2006.
I believe it was the same lady selling the same pottery whistles in the same place in 2008.
 
Gardens
Vegetable gardens at Lat village near Dalat.
The Lat village is home to a number of people from one of the Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
 
Pagoda
A part of Linh An Pagoda near Dalat
One of many beautiful temples and pagodas in Vietnam
 
Waterfall
Elephant waterfall near Dalat
 
Cao Dai temple
Mid-day service in the main Cao Dai temple which is within day-trip distance of Saigon
If you must indulge in religious delusions, this is a beautiful place to do it.

Train travel in Vietnam

Trains in Vietnam are comfortable, although not fast. The night trains are very convenient, so long as there is one when and where you need it. 'Soft Sleepers' provide comfortable and cheap travel, four bunks to a compartment; the toilets are at the ends of the carriages. If there is a well timed train, you can get a good night's sleep, a night's accommodation, and get to where you want to go – all in one.

In our experience, booking on the trains could be made much easier – this seems to be one thing that still suffers from the poor service that seems a characteristic of socialist economies.

There are also poor and desperate people who inhabit the stations hoping to be able to 'help' foreigners find their seats or bunks and carry the luggage; for a small fee. On one train a pushy man grabbed my case, without asking, lifted it up onto a high shelf in our train compartment, and demanded payment. I tried to point out that I didn't need, want, or ask for his help, but he would not leave until I took my case off the high shelf to prove that he was superfluous; I put it back up after he left looking for others to help before the train left.

We travelled by night train both directions from Hanoi to Lao Cai, from Hanoi to Hue, and again from Nha Trang to Saigon (this last train got us into Saigon around 0330hrs, rather an inconveniently early arrival.
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Services

ATM machines are easy to find in the larger or more touristy cities in Vietnam.

Internet access, likewise, is easy to find.

Laundry services are usually provided by hotels, but might be even cheaper if you take your washing to the easily found laundries yourself.

Posting stuff back home is very easy, at least in Hoi An where we needed to send a box full off. We took our stuff to the post office. The clerk found a box the right size, helped us pack it, and then helped us with the necessary paper work. We later learned that Post Office staff would have come to our hotel and done it all there had we requested it.
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Climate change and Vietnam

Vietnam is hot. With climate change it will probably get hotter. Much of the highly populated parts of Vietnam is very low-lying. As the sea level rises, and typhoons become more intense and common, flooding will increase, especially in the Mekong and Red River deltas.

The Vietnamese are responsible for only a very small percentage of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been added to the atmosphere in the last couple of hundred years and is the main cause for climate change. Nations like Australia and the USA are much more to blame for the problem, but the Vietnamese will probably suffer more than we will.

This, and similar ethical considerations connected with the record of USA and Australia, weighs on my conscience and should weigh on the conscience of all thinking Westerners.




Religion in Vietnam

Vietnam has a very mixed bag of religions. Christian churches are common, Buddhist temples (and pagodas) are everywhere, ancestor worship and animism is widely practiced, Vietnam is the home of Cao-Diaism, and then, I believe, there are Taoism and Confucianism.

I had the impression that at least some of the Vietnamese mix their religions, praying at several temples devoted to different religions.

The Vietnamese people seem very tollerant with regard to religion, perhaps with such diversity they realise that to believe that whichever one they followed was "the one true religion" would be a highly questionable assumption.

The communist government, to their credit, tried to discourage superstitions (which of course includes all religions), but don't seem to have been very successful.
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Index

Accommodation
Building
Climate change and Vietnam
Dalat
Danang
Disappearing motorbikes
Eating
Halong Bay
Hanoi
Hoi An
Hue
Mekong Delta
Nha Trang
Quy Nhon
Religion in Vietnam
Saigon
Sapa
Services
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Train travel
Vietnamese coffee