21 Jan-15 Feb, 2001
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
Everybody Still Calls It Saigon...Jan 21-25
Situated on the banks of the meandering Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is the economic engine of the new Vietnam. While conservative and proud Hanoi, far to the north, remains the country's political, artistic, and ideological capital, brash Ho Chi Minh City moves to the beat of one thing only: money. Two kinds of people seem to be attracted to this place: entrepreneurs and con artists. Everywhere we went, big, blazing ads for the latest western-style goods and gadgets could be seen -- Mercedes, Phillips, Hewlett-Packard. It was hard to believe we were in the largest city of one of the world's last remaining hardcare "communist" nations. Things are changing fast since the government began its policy of doi moi (new thinking) in the early 1990s, ushering in a new age of pseudo-capitalistic market reforms. After the North Vietnamese troops overran the capital of the South in 1975, they rechristened the city "Ho Chi Minh City," but the name really never stuck. People still call it Saigon, as they did in the high-flying days of the American-South Vietnamese occupation.
Taking a ride on one of the city's many cyclos
Saigon is a big, crazy city. There isn't much in the way of sightseeing here -- you can cruise through the city's major sights in about two days. And that's all the better, because Saigon, as fun as it can be, can be a challenging place to stay for more than a couple of days. The streets are full of beggars, annoyingly persistent cyclo drivers, and con men who will do or say anything to part the foolish tourist from his or her money and valuables. You really have to watch your wallet here; it's a crazy place. Thankfully, the rest of Vietnam was remarkably easy to travel through -- no pickpockets, few beggars, and few hassles. We were glad we got Saigon out of the way quickly. It can be a taxing place to linger in.
" Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime... "
- Mark Twain
Despite the problems with some of the street people, Saigon is a pretty interesting and historic place. And it's sure moving fast enough to keep visitors entranced with its own unique energy. We stayed in a high-rise hotel on Nguyen Hue Street in old Colonial Saigon, just one block away from historic Dong Khoi Street (known as the Rue Catinat during the French occupation and Tu Do Street during the American War). Here, in the old French Quarter, there are many charming, restored colonial buildings. A few of the bigger, bolder buildings of French design still serve as government buildings today: the main post office near St. Joseph's Cathedral, and the beautiful City Hall (originally built as the Hotel de Ville by the French). A day's meander through the city center unveils lots of colonial gems, others freshly painted and beautifully upkept, some fading and in need of some attention. And when the visitor tires of looking at the old French Colonial buildings, northwest of downtown lies Cholon, one of Southeast Asia's most interesting Chinatowns. Here, the modern edge of downtown Saigon is replaced by neighborhoods of two-story shophouses and elaborate pagodas. Cholon is an interesting place to wander around for a few hours.
The beautiful main post office
Surprise -- great shopping and eating opportunities abound here! We really didn't think Saigon would be so full of so many nice shops or restaurants. Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi streets are chock full of upscale, boutique-style shops, selling everything from fine Vietnamese silk to custom-tailored clothing to beautiful lacquerware. Next to these shops lie numerous excellent restaurants, decorated with similar cosmopolitan-chic flare. Thinking that the rest of Vietnam would be similarly endowed with shopping opportunities, we held off on buying anything unique, figuring we could do so later in Hanoi. We were wrong -- there is no better place than Saigon to shop in Vietnam. If you come to Saigon, bring a few empty pieces of luggage -- you'll need them for all the great stuff you'll want to buy here!
One day, while cruising around town, we decided to try and find the location of the wartime former U.S. Embassy. You know, the place where those historic pictures -- images of hordes of pro-U.S. South Vietnamese trying to cram into the remaining helicopters taking off from the roof of the embassy as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese troops on April 30, 1975 -- were taken. We were surprised by what we found there. The former U.S. embassy, which for 25 years sat abandoned, decaying in the tropical heat, is now gone. In its place: the shiny new U.S. Consulate. Yes, the United States now has official ties with Vietnam once again. Further proof that the war was a long, long time ago.
We arrived in Vietnam at the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (same as the Chinese New Year). We figured it would be interesting to watch the festivities, and to celebrate our second new year in a single month. We had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. Tet is like New Year's, Christmas, the 4th of July, and everybody's birthday all rolled into one. It takes place over a one-week period, during which shops and restaurants close early (or don't open at all), everybody visits friends and relatives, and people crowd the streets in immense numbers late into the night. All around the city, people proudly display in profusion flowering apricot and miniature orange trees at the entrances to their homes and shops. These trees are sold in huge roadside lots during the week leading up to Tet (very similar to the tradition of buying Christmas Trees in the west). The first night of Tet is the biggest party, when the new year is officially rung in (just like at home, with fireworks and the whole bit) and people party down like mad. We were invited by our hotel to join in the festivities on the building's rooftop. We must say, we have never seen a better fireworks show than the one Saigon put on over the Saigon river that night -- it was stupendous. And so we rang in the Year of the Snake. Unfortunately, we found getting things done during the following days to be quite difficult. Everything was closed and people were all out visiting their friends and families. We spent a lot of time in our hotel room during Tet, because there just wasn't much else going on outside. (Until late at night, of course, when the streets came roaring to life again). A bit of a hassle, yes, but we really enjoyed being in Vietnam for the Tet festivities.
After doing our thing in Saigon, we had a dilemma on our hands: we had to get about 700 miles north, to the central city of Danang, but we didn't want to rely on the very slow bus or train systems to get there. We figured we had paid our dues taking buses and trains in places like Morocco, Spain and Turkey. But we had heard really bad things about Vietnam's national carrier, Vietnam Airlines. After all, they used to have a bad reputation for using dangerous old Chinese and Russian junk piles to shuttle people around between inter-country destinations. Flying in to Vietnam, we weren't concerned -- they've been using modern jets for all international flights for some time. It was the internal flights we were nervous about. When we found out that Vietnam Airlines had just last year scrapped its rusting, ancient Chinese and Russian fleet, we were relieved. All of the airline's planes are now modern, comfy things from companies like Boeing and Airbus. And so we flew from Saigon to Danang -- in Business Class seats! Yes, Vietnam Airlines even has Business Class. And, surprisingly, they were the most spacious, comfortable airline seats we'd ever traveled in before. For only about 16 bucks more than the economy cheap seats. You just never know until you arrive somewhere how things are really going to be...
Business Class--on Vietnam Airlines?! Here's proof!
A Very Beautiful Old TownJan 25-30
We landed in Danang just after sundown. The airport there, like the rest of the city, is unattractive and dumpy. There was no reason to stay in Danang. So, we hopped in a taxi and took a 45-minute ride south, to the charming town of Hoi An. Originally, we thought we might spend three days in Hoi An. We ended up liking the place so much, we lingered for five days, and we then left only very grudgingly. We could've spent a lot more time there.
Hoi An is an entirely charming, ancient town built along on a lazy riverbank a few kilometers inland from the South China Sea. The place is colorful, easy-going, very friendly and incredibly picturesque. Originally, Hoi An served as an important center of trade during the 16th-18th centuries, hosting Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese traders. Over time, the river silted up, the town lost its lock on the business of trade, and things just kind of stood still for a couple centuries. Today, it's the only place in all of Vietnam with original Vietnamese architecture. In fact, it's recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Amazingly, Hoi An escaped untouched by the country's many wars. This is one gem of a town, and we can't recommend it enough. It tops our list of "nicest small towns," up there with Essaouira, Morocco, and Jeffrey's Bay, South Africa.
Hoi An exudes real old world atmosphere!
The entire downtown area of Hoi An is protected from modern development. No new buildings are allowed, and any modifications to the old ones must meet rigid standards to blend in with the surrounding centuries-old structures. The buildings are quite colorful -- ochre yellow, bright bluewash, sandy pink. In places, the paint has peeled off to reveal the layers of alternating colors from previous paint jobs. In the darker alleys, green moss hangs from the shaded, ancient walls. The photo opportunities are numerous; we must have shot four or five rolls of film in as many days while cruising the streets here.
Typical Hoi An street scene
Hoi An is internationally renowned not only for its remarkably well-preserved architecture, but for two other things as well: its many artists and tailors. Along the main streets (all two of 'em), art shops crowd between the cafes, restaurants, and old houses. Vietnam is becoming known for its emerging artistic scene, especially painting. The paintings of some well-known Vietnamese artists sell for thousands of dollars in Hanoi and Saigon (forget about what the price soars to by the time a piece reaches an exposition in Frankfurt or Hong Kong). Here, in Hoi An, local painters, inspired by the great beauty of their hometown, capture the colorful town's character with oil on canvas. Street scenes are the most popular, with styles ranging from the very realistic to the extremely abstract. It's possible to pick up an original piece directly from the artist, without paying the exhorbitant markups of the middle-man shops in Hanoi. A lot of the paintings for sale in the shops are cheap knock-offs, copies of paintings executed by students or those who, lacking originality, simply duplicate the work of more capable artists. But there are also some outstanding artists who produce only their own original work. One such person is Hoang Trong Tien, whose shop we were lucky enough to wander into one afternoon. Mr. Tien became our friend over the course of our days in Hoi An, inviting us out to coffee with him and his brother-in-law, and even to his house, where we met his wonderful wife and charming daughter. Mr. Tien's work, with its pseudo-abstract style and brilliant colors, comes straight from the heart. Each year, he explained to us, he lets his overall mood drive that year's painting style, altering his use of colors and techniques. So, each year's offerings offer something completely different from the last. In addition to being a talented artist, Mr. Tien is also a great person, always giving back some of his profits to local charities. We're glad we had a chance to meet and get to know him. (And yes, a couple of his paintings will be gracing our walls once we return home!)
Hanging at the cafe with Mr. Tien (right)
It's pretty much impossible to come to Hoi An without having some clothes made. A lot of clothes made. The town is full of tailors who will create for you a wardrobe of the finest-fitting articles of from high-quality materials -- in about 24 hours. We had heard of the reputation of Hoi An's tailors before we arrived here, but we were skeptical -- come on, a nice tailored suit for under $100? A custom silk dress for $15? In Vietnam? No way. Our skepticism was unfounded -- Hoi An's tailors are among the best anywhere. There are dozens of tailors here, and the quality does vary, but many are extremely good at what they do. Unable to resist, we ended up buying a bunch of stuff. I got a great new cashmere wool suit (about 100 bucks), a few dress shirts made of Japanese silk, and Jen loaded up on silk dresses and a silk-wool suit of her own. We had to buy a knock-off Nike sports duffel to pack all the clothes we had made in. (Later, in Hanoi, we would spend as much money on shipping the clothes home as we did on the clothes themselves). By the time we left Hoi An, we were equipped...for jobs we didn't yet have, for parties we hadn't yet been invited to. But, oh, will we be ready, baby, when the time comes...
Trying on our new threads!
Another reason we loved Hoi An so much was the attitude of the locals. Very friendly and, like the town they live in, very charming, the people of Hoi An seem to be aware they're part of a special place. The locals are really mellow going about their daily activities, whether they're chatting in the streets with friends, visiting the busy morning market to buy fresh produce, or sitting in one of the many cafes sipping coffee and snacking on cake. Everything moves at a nice, easy pace here, and nobody really bothers visitors too much. It's a comfortable, easy place to hang out for a few days (or weeks!).
Activity at the morning market
Hoi An also has excellent regional cuisine. Local specialties include cao lau, a type of brothy noodle dish served with fresh greens, sliced roast pork, and crispy croutons, and white rose, a wonton-like dumpling filled with shrimp and served with vinegar and chili sauce -- delicious! Overall, we found Vietnamese food to be fresh, delicious, and very light and healthy. But Hoi An's local food was even better than the generally excellent stuff we found in the rest of the country.
Kids, this is what chewing betelnut does to your teeth!
The greenest green there is -- a Vietnamese rice field
The best way to get around in Hoi An is on a rented bicycle. The town is small, and there are many picturesque little villages in the surrounding countryside which are easily visited on two wheels. The traffic in town is light (there are more bicycles than cars), and it's easy to peddle through the picturesque streets at any time of day. One afternoon, we traveled across the river to a small island dotted with small villages. The local kids, always happy to practice their english skills, lit up when they saw us strangers peddling down the dirt road into their neighborhood. A hearty, shouted "Hello! Hello!" became a greeting we would become used to in rural Vietnam -- the kids here are extremely outgoing and curious. Another great bike ride is out to the beach, about 5km from town. The road passes through stunning rice fields and beautiful green scenery before terminating at a long, windswept beach. Alas, it wasn't quite summertime yet, so it wasn't good beach weather. But we did enjoy the bike ride along the way.
Bike ride through the countryside
After five wonderful days in Hoi An, we grudgingly had to leave. The ancient royal capital of Hue, 3.5 hours north by road, was calling...
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