Archive for Vietnam
The road climbed steadily through mist shrouded mountains, hairpins directing views to forests and valleys far below. Above, the grey sky lightened steadily through pale blue to a rich piercing blue of pure mountain air. The mountain peaks still high above us were suddenly bathed in warm sunlight as the rays of dawn surmounted the surrounding peaks. We were headed to Sapa, 1,600 metres above sea level and 40km from the Chinese border, in northern Vietnam.
We travelled from Hanoi in a rather nice two berth compartment on the Livitrans overnight train. Our warm welcome in Sapa was announced by a good breakfast and strong Vietnamese coffee with a hefty glob of condensed milk in the bottom. Sapa is surrounded by the 3,000 metre high Hoang Lien Son range, the highest mountains in Vietnam. From our hotel balcony the mountains marched magnificently to every horizon.
Starlight, brighter than we had ever seen mesmerized us on our first night. The cool crystal clear mountain air allowed the stars to gleam in their full splendour. Orion arched overhead with such clarity that even the nebulosity in the sword was clearly visible.
At the weekend the local ethnic minority peoples come in to the market wearing their colourful traditional costumes. They are incredibly friendly and inquisitive people and we soon struck up conversations with Tami, a 34 year old Red Dzao woman with two sons and a daughter, who was given to her by a friend. We also chatted to Gow, a twenty year old, Black H’mong woman carrying goods to the market.
It was clear from the shy glances exchanged between the brightly dressed girls and boys around the market that this was an opportunity to meet your significant other. Huddles of girls would follow the approach of a bunch of blokes then explode into serious conversation then peals of laughter.
Exploring the spectacular scenery around the town was essential. Many visitors came just to trek through the valleys and some to try to scale the peaks. We hired a Russian made jeep and a driver to follow the old supply road to Dien Bien Phu. This was built by the French in their abortive attempt to suppress the Vietnamese in the 1950s. We stopped at the highest point on the road, 2,000 metres above sea level, to take in the breathtaking view of the high mountains. We also visited other natural sights such as the 200 metre high silver waterfalls with Moon our delightful Vietnamese guide.
Since the population of the town is 70% Buddhist and 20% Taoist we asked Moon why the entire town was bedecked with Christmas trees, coloured lights, tinsel and fake snowmen. It’s all for the tourists she confided simply. Ah well deck the halls and turn up the jingle bells, its Christmas after all.
Despite the poor weather forecast for the area we had glorious sunshine for our week in Sapa. It was only when we were leaving and we drove down through the cloud layer at 1000 metres that we realised that Sapa and the surrounding mountain peaks had been above the clouds!
Where we were:
We are often asked what sights we think are worth seeing, which places we found interesting and what would we recommend doing. These are our thoughts. There is much more detail in our Journal for Vietnam.
The details may change so we suggest you check with a good guide book. We prefer the “Rough Guide” series because they are well written and kept up to date. You can get more information on www.roughguides.com
These notes are based on our journey in 2007 from the Mekong Delta in the south to Sapa in the North. So the listing here does not imply a preference. However we did greatly enjoy the Mekong Delta, “Tet” in Saigon and the beaches and cities in the South. Hanoi on the other hand was a trial of wits to prevent being ripped off.
Floating Markets of the Mekong Delta are fast disappearing as the road and bridge network is improved. The floating Market at Can Tho is a wonderful sight and is best visited in the early morning.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Notra Dam Cathedral Hotel De Ville
General Post Office and the Opera House
It is worth spending a few days taking in the French architecture and the many excellent museums. Don’t miss the War Remnants museum, it gives a frank view of the American War from the Vietnamese perspective.
Cao Di Cathedral
An interesting excursion is to visit the Cao Dai Great Temple at Tay Ninh.
Chu Chi Tunnels
The network of tunnels 60km from Saigon used by the Viet Con to resist the American and south Vietnamese forces are open to the public. Here you see destroyed US tanks, crouch in the tunnels and fire a variety of weapons from the period.
We thoroughly enjoyed celebrating Chinese New Year or “Tet” in Saigon in February 2007. There was an air of friendly festivity and the streets were full of lion dancers, dragons and colourful lanterns.
The beautiful beach at Mui Ne is clean and relatively free of traders and hawkers. There is accommodation to suit all pockets. This is a good place to chill out and relax for a few days or few weeks.
Around Mui Ne there are a few sights worth a few hours diversion. The picturesque white sand dunes occupy a relatively small area but are nice place to spend an hour or so. The red sand dunes and the “Fairy Stream” are exaggerated attractions and not worth going out of your way to see.
This former hill station is worth a couple of days to escape the heat of the coast. There are waterfalls to visit and other attractions such as the Summer Palace of the last Emperor Bao Dai and the Crazy House built by architect Hang Nga. A walk around Lake Xuan Huong makes for a pleasant afternoon.
There is a nice beach, plenty of hotels to suit all pockets and a wide range of eating places; from good restaurants to pavement cafés. You could do worse than spending an hour in the fascinating Alexander Yersin Museum. The Thap Ba Hot Springs offers an afternoon of wallowing in warm oozing mud, washed off by warm invigorating mineral rich water.
The Po Nagar Cham Towers and the big white Buddha in the Long Son Pagoda merit about half an hour each. Be careful not to be ripped off by a friendly monk in the Pagoda.
The Nha Trang highlight is probably a trip around the islands with an opportunity to snorkel amongst the richest coral colonies in Vietnam.
An old town full character and narrow streets fronting the Thu Bon River. The highlight is the sixteenth century Japanese Bridge. Whist the town and the bridge is a UN World Heritage Sight it can be fully explored in half a day. The real attraction of Hoi An is the tailor shops, shoe shops and friendly people. They can make made to measure clothes and shoes in any style in 24 hours.
This old Cham civilisation site is the best archaeological remains of the thousand year old civilisation in Vietnam. It is in a lovely setting and represents a nice day out from Hoi An for a walk in the woods. However it is no where near as large and impressive as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. If you have been to Angkor Wat My Son will be disappointing.
The excellent Cham museum holds many of the carvings and statues recovered from My Son and the other Cham sites around Vietnam. The city itself is not particularly attractive but the people seemed friendly and happy to just chat to visitors.
The Imperial City within the mighty Citadel is rich in the architecture of the seventeenth century Emperors. There are palaces, temples, theatres and courtyards in well laid out walks and gardens. It’s not as well preserved as the Forbidden City in Beijing but we spent whole days there, even going back to relax and see some things again.
Outside the Citadel there are interesting sights in the Chinese Quarter and the European Quarter. If you have time to spend in Vietnam it is probably best to spend it in Hué rather than Hanoi.
Emperor Ming Mang Mausoleum. Thien Mu Pagoda
The Mausoleums of the Emperors were built in the valley of the Perfume River. A day trip takes in these and interesting temples. A good day out.
For those of a certain age the American War and the infamous Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) rings bells. The Vietnamese people however have sensibly worked to unify the country and erase the evidence of conflict. So there is really not much to see apart from a small museum at Khe Sanh. On the other hand a day trip to the former DMZ goes through spectacular countryside along highway 9, the road to Laos.
Hanoi is a pleasant city to walk around. Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city provides good views and shady trees. The Old Quarter is packed full of hustle and bustle and interesting shops. Hopping over the waste water flowing in gutters to avoid the thousands of darting motorcycles is part of the fun. The budget hotels however are a pain. The price charged by some is based on the assumption that guests will book a tour from which a commission can be extracted or a scam executed. If tours are not booked other means of extracting money is achieved, like trebling the price of drinks in the room fridges or fiddling the exchange rates. When we booked our Halong Bay cruise the staff from the hotel booked us on a much cheaper boat trip and pocketed the difference. Don’t book tours from the hotels in Hanoi.
A day trip to the Perfume Pagoda involves a row boat ride up the peaceful Red River with high craggy mountains up each side. The Pagoda itself is high in a mountain at the end of the valley. It is reached after a two hour walk up a rocky path or using the new cable car. Be prepared however for the aggressive insistence of a substantial “tip” from the ladies who row the boats.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Seen in good light on a sunny day it is magnificent. A three day two night cruise on a reputable cruise boat is definitely recommended. Take care to book directly with the cruise company and not through a hotel or a local travel agency
The mountains around Sapa are breathtaking and the trekking opportunities great. The local indigenous peoples are a delight, very friendly and open. Certainly they want to sell you their craft work, but they don’t seem to mind if you smile and say no. The train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, near Sapa, has six berth compartments, four berth compartments and very comfortable two berth compartments.
Where we were:
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At the weekend Sapa throngs with the indigenous peoples who live in the mountains. Here groups of Black H'mong girls chat as the walk along the street.
Gow, a twenty year old Black Hmong woman standing by the lake in Sapa. Tami wearing the traditional dress of the Red Dzao chats to us about her daily life.
The road over the highest mountain pass in Vietnam, 1,900 metres above sea level. Standing beside our Russian made 4×4 on the mountain road.
Sapa Town sparkling in the sunshine. In the background is Fanxipan the highest mountain in Vietnam. The mountain scenery around Sapa was exhilarating. This is an excellent area for trekking and mountain climbing.
Margaret sitting in our comfortable two berth railway compartment. Allan relaxing on the balcony of our hotel with the mountains in the background.
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