Vietnam - 2006
Vietnam had been on my "todo-list" for a while and I was
pretty much excited when I had the chance to spend 10 days
there after a business trip to Singapore. This was the first
time I was travelling with both backpack and a suitcase (including
my laptop). Luckily Singapore airport had a reliable luggage
storage service where I could leave my business gear waiting
as I changed to my rugged traveller outfit.
Check out the
- Mui Ne
Because of the schedule I tried to minimize the amount of
travelling in Vietnam and visited only three destinations.
This proved to be a good choice as moving from one place to
another was really slow. Even though the beaches I visited
were pretty poor by South East Asian standards there were
lots of interesting sights to be seen. War memorabilia in
Saigon, sand dunes in Mui Ne and the mountain scenery in
Dalat were all fascinating in their own way. Food was
excellent as I expected and people were friendly (even
though the number of touts was rather annoying). Traffic in
Saigon was the craziest I've experienced so far - walking
around was quite a challenge as you had to be 100% focused
on the endless motorcycles coming from every possible
direction. Anyway an interesting country definitely worth
visiting. Not quite as wild as Cambodia but not as developed
21.12.2006 Singapore - Saigon
I wake up in the 5-star luxury hotel where I have been
staying for the previous two nights. I enjoy my last hours
in the suite as for the coming 10 days I'll be staying in
hotels with only one star or less. I take a taxi to the
airport and leave my business gear to the luggage storage
service. Hope I'll find them intact when I return!
I'm flying Garuda Indonesia which proves
to be a pleasant experience. Immigration procedure goes
smoothly as nowadays Finns are allowed to stay in Vietnam
for 14 days without a visa. I take a taxi to the local "Khao
San Road" (called Pham Ngu Lao). The first impressions are
not a surprise - bigger and more developed than Phnom Penh
but smaller and crazier than Bangkok. There seems to be lots
of posters around that remind me of the era of Soviet Union.
Another thing that strikes the eye is the motorcycles. There
are thousands of them everywhere (and just a few cars).
Streets are quite wide and the traffic is endless so
crossing the streets requires a certain technique (which
basically means walking very slowly in the middle of traffic).
Actually quite ease but still dangerous.
I choose a random $15 hotel (rather
expensive by local standards). I start exploring the city by
just wandering around. Before learning the proper techniques
the traffic makes moving slow. This city is not meant for
moving around by foot - pavements are narrow / they do not
exist / are full of parked vehicles or street vendors. After
about two hours I return to the hotel and start to look for
a place to have dinner. There a lots of places to choose
from - anything from South East Asia to Italy and Mexico. I
choose a Vietnamese restaurant and enjoy my first local
One day to explore the compulsory sights of the city.
Additional todo's include locating an ATM and buying sandals.
I am now mentally prepared for the madness of the traffic so
moving by foot is lot easier than yesterday. My first
destination is "Reunification Palace" - the former
presidential palace of South Vietnam. It looks impressive
but unfortunately the place is closed from general public
because of some conference.
I continue to check out the headquarters
of the communists (no entrance for visitors!). As I'm having
a look at Lonely Planet I'm approached by two "shoemakers"
on the street who apparently want to fix my old sneakers
which are really worn out. I think about givining them a try
and think about $1-2 being a fair price. The guys fix the
shoes properly but I'm quite shocked as they say that their
services cost $10 (which is plain robbery by local standards).
My mistake as I did not negotiate the price before using the
services. $10 for sure does not make me go bankrupt but the
mere thought of being ripped off makes me surprisingly angry.
After the incident I visit the Museum of
Saigon which is not very impressive. I continue to "War
Remnants Museum", which is a lot more interesting. Tons of
material from the war era and a strong anti-American message
all around the place. In addition to the numerous
photographs and artifacts like guns there are also several
tanks and aircrafts. Some of the photos are really shocking
- especially the ones about the victims of Agent Orange.
Next I walk to the local marketplace
which seems to have lots of shoe stores on one small alley
nearby. I buy "genuine" Nike sandals for $10. I go back to
hotel to take a shower. There are still two hours before
dark so I decide to pay a visit to Chinatown to see some
pagodas. I take a taxi as there is not that much of daylight
left but getting to the right destination proves to be
difficult. There are obviously two Chinatowns around and
first the driver tries to take me to the wrong side of city.
As I finally get to Cholon it is almost dark. Most of the
temples are already closed so this trip was a waste of time
in a sense. I decide to walk back to hotel (even though the
distance is almost 5km) as it is more interesting to observe
the busy streets of Cholon that way.
It is also interesting to see the local
Christmas decorations - in addition to plastic christmas
trees it is funny to hear Vietnamese versions of familiar
christmas carols (Jingle Bells for example). I'm pretty
exhausted and hungry as I finally return to hotel. As I'm
too tired to walk any further I have dinner at a Thai
restaurant on the other side of the street - excellent food
and unbelievably friendly service!
23.12.2006 Saigon - Mui Ne
I decide to spend Christmas eve on beach. Therefore I head
to Mui Ne, that should be "unspoiled" according to LP. I
take a tourist bus there. Even though it is only 200km there
the painful and hot journey takes about 5 hours. I get off
at a random location near some big resorts. There is lots of
accommodation available - anything from cheap guest houses
to 4-star hotels. I still don't have a clue of my exact
location so I decide to have lunch at a local restaurant
with plastic chairs. It seems that the waitresses don't
speak any English so placing an order is challenging.
Instead of water I get a glass of cold tea! Anyway I somehow
manage to order some squid which proves to be excellent.
I continue looking for a hotel. I end up
in a place called "Nhan Hoa", where they have a bungalow
with balcony, swimming pool and sea view for $20. That is
pretty much twice my budget but I like the place and I am
bored of walking. There is no beach at all, instead there is
concrete platform for the boats of the fishermen. That is
not an issue really - even if there was white sand it would
inaccessible because of the high tide. The narrow strip of
sand basically disappears before noon! Additionally the winds
are constantly strong so swimming is quite dangerous (and
the water rather murky). The worst thing is the numerous sewer pipes
that bring a continuous flow of waste to the sea. So I
wouldn't call this a place to look for the perfect beach.
Anyway the sun is shining and the swimming pool area is
pleasant place to chill out so I decide to settle in Mui Ne
for at least a couple of days.
I spent the rest of the day doing the
usual chill out related activities (ie. books, crossword
puzzles, sudokus and music). After sunset. After sunset
there three lengthy blackouts so the activities are
therefore rather limited. Fortunately I have my trusted
Maglite with me.
24.12.2006 Mui Ne
This my first Christmas ever abroad. Actually the whole idea
of Christmas feels pretty much distant when I wake up in the
morning and have noodles for breakfast. The sky is slightly
cloudy as I start walking alongside the shoreline to west.
As it is still low tide the sandy part of the beach is not
yet covered by sea. Anyway the sand is still somewhat wet
and not very comfortable for laying in the sun.
Wakeboarding and windsurfing seem to be
popular hobbies on this windy beach. I spend some time
sitting in a beach chair located in front of a big resort
and observe the chilled out atmosphere of the beach. I try
to go swimming in the sea but as the waves are dangerously
strong I think it is better to skip that exercise.
I start walking back to the hotel - this
time using the main road. There is an interesting Chinese
temple on the way back - lots of beautiful statues and
carvings to take photos of. Temple feels pretty new but
still the same familiar themes from older ones (dragons for
example) can be seen everywhere.
I spend the rest of the day just by
hanging at the swimming pool or balcony. As dark comes I
realize it is the time for a Christmas meal. The bigger
hotels nearby offer special menus (and some kind of party)
for the hefty price of $20. I don't feel like spending the
evening with families and kids so I choose a smaller place
where I'm the only customer. So my Christmas meal is a whole
fish cooked in Vietnamese style. I enjoy the dish as
Vietnamese Christmas carols are played in the background. I
return to hotel and enjoy the sounds of the waves on the
balcony. Not much of Christmas traditions but I don't really
feel that I miss any of them at the moment...
25.12.2006 Mui Ne
Today it is the time to do some sightseeing. My destination
is the sand dunes that seem to be the main attraction here.
I'm not quite sure about their exact location and whether to
go by bicycle or motorbike so I start walking to the nearest
attraction that is called "Fairy stream". It does not look
too impressive as the water smells rather bad and the only
way explore the area would be to walk barefoot in the stream.
Having wounded my foot badly during my previous trip to
Mexico I'm not overly impressed by this idea.
I realize that the dunes are still far
away so I hire a motorbike driver. There is a some sort of
travel agency nearby that helps me to find a guy that speaks
proper English. Before reaching the dunes we stop by the
local fishing village. It is as I expected - quite
attractive from a distance but chaotic and dirty when you
get closer. Anyway from the hilltop you can take beautiful
photos of the bay full of fishing boats.
Next stop is the "Red Sand Dunes". As
soon as we stop I'm surrounded by local kids. I understand
that they are trying to sell something but I don't quite
understand what. Soon I realize that they have small sledges
made of cardboard that can be used to glide on the dunes.
Interesting idea but it seems that a person of my size can
hardly move in the coarse sand. Dunes are quite impressive
but the kids are so annoying that I decide to move on.
After a short ride the next stop is "Red
Canyon". It is really impressive formation of red (chalk?)
rock. The scenery reminds me of images of Grand Canyon in
the US. I'm basically alone there so it is very impressive
just admire the magnificent views in almost perfect silence.
The last stop is the "White Sand Dunes". It is about half an
hour away but for sure worth the dusty ride. Definitely the
most impressive spot of the day. As the name tells the sand
is much lighter in colour than at the Red Sand Dunes. There
is also a big lake nearby partly filled with some
interesting vegetation. I spend a long time just walking on
the dunes and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Finally it is time to return to the
place where started this small tour. As I return to hotel
there still a couple of hours to enjoy the sun at the
swimming pool. Later in the evening I visit a nearby place
advertised as "family restaurant". There are lots of people
around and the place is really chaotic. I have to wait about
one hour before I get the dish I ordered - can't even
remember what it was. The people are friendly though and
offer me a complimentary dragon fruit (which is really good).
26.12.2006 Mui Ne
I had two options yesterday - either to buy a bus ticket to
Dalat or enjoy sunshine still one more day. I chose the
latter one and decided not to move far from the hotel. So
the usual sunbathing activities (mp3 player for example)
kept me busy during the daytime hours.
In the evening I bought a bus ticket for
the morning bus to Dalat from a nearby travel agency. After
yesterday's disappointment I had dinner at the "old &
trustworthy" place where I already had my Christmas meal.
Not much of activities for the day, only excitement being
the blackout (yet another) in the evening that lasted over
27.12.2006 Mui Ne - Dalat
Time to wake up early again - the bus was supposed to leave
at 7.30. As I said it was supposed to. When it was 8.00 and
there was no bus to be seen I was not really surprised - a
half an hour delay would not be anything new. The friendly
lady at the hotel reception called somewhere and confirmed
that the bus should be coming. Soon after that the guy from
the travel agency arrives by motorbike and tells that there
won't be any bus as it has been broken! He says that the
only chance is to wait for the next bus coming at 13.00.
As there is still several hours of time
left I decide to make a short trip to the "Cham Towers"
about 10 kilometres away. These eroded structures built of
red bricks are nothing compared to Angkor Wat but there is
beautiful view of the surrounding area. I still have some
time spend at the swimming pool before the bus finally comes.
It appears to be one of the oldest and lousiest ones I've
ever ridden - no problem though. The journey is actually
quite interesting as the bus takes the direct route to Dalat
that means using a very small road going through the
mountains. It also means that the average speed is very low
but it means also better chances for enjoying the beautiful
It is interesting to observe how the
scenery changes the higher in the mountains we get. There
are lots of pine trees and the air is definitely getting
chillier. When we finally reach Dalat it is already dark and
actually rather cold. The locals wear warm jackets and hats.
As terrain is really hilly the city looks somewhat different
from other towns in the area. An interesting landmark is an
Eiffel Tower replica that is over 100 meters high... The
town looks pretty lively and I spend some time at the local
marketplace where somebody is apparently shooting a movie!
I soon realize that it is getting too cold to stay outside
just wearing a t-shirt so I return to hotel. I book a
motorcycle guide for tomorrow (one of the famous "Easy
Riders" recommended by LP). The price of $20 sounded
somewhat expensive but the comments in the guy's notebook
were so overwhelmingly positive that it should be worth the
Again my alarm clock buzzed early as I wanted to have a
decent breakfast before today's tour. I met my guide Tom in
the hotel's restaurant. He was an elderly guy with grayish
hair - obviously he had been working as a guide for a long
time. The motorcycle was equally old Honda (meaning a proper
motorcycle - not one of the smaller motorbikes that
everybody seems to have). We started the tour at 9.30 and
the first destination was a pagoda on the outskirts of the
town. There was a huge dragon statue that was at least 30
meters long and the usual share of statues and other
After the pagoda we headed to the
mountains and countryside. The scenery was awesome and the
pine trees reminded me of northern Europe. After a couple of
kilometers we started to make stops to visits various spots
of interest. Many of them were basically the homes of local
farmers - the Easy Riders must have made some kind of
agreement to bring visitors to certain places to experience
the day-to-day activities of Vietnamese countryside. The
activities I saw included for example broom making (!),
coffee bean processing, silkworm farming and rice wine
The locals lived in simple houses but
seemed happy - there were lots of smiling faces to be seen.
On the other the area was obviously getting wealthier as a
result of the coffee trade - there were numerous
construction yards to be seen. After the countryside tour we
stopped at the "Elephant falls". It was the biggest and most
impressive waterfall I've seen so far. There was also an
interesting pagoda nearby.
After having lunch we continued by
visiting a silk factory (where the equipment used looked
really old). Then it was the time to return to Dalat where
the final stop was a place called "Crazy House". That really
lived up to its name - the place was a weird combination of
surrealistic architecture and utter kitsch. It was not
beautiful in the way Gaudi's buildings are - rather the
place was just weird and tasteless. But still interesting in
a strange way! After the final stop Tom dropped me at my
hotel. It was time to thank him and say goodbye.
Anyway a perfect day and one of the
highlights of the day tours I have made in South East Asia.
Rarely you can get as close to the daily lives of ordinary
people as I did today. Feelings like this once again remind
me why I travel!
I noticed that the blackout that started
the previous night was still there. Actually half of the
city seemed to be completely in the dark (including most of
the hotels). As there still was some daylight left I decided
to have a closer look at the Eiffel Tower replica. It
actually was some kind of telecommunications tower! I spent
some time wandering around at the marketplace and returned
to hotel to wait for the blackout to end. That finally
happened closer to eight o'clock so I decided to visit a
local Internet cafe to get some fresh news. The connection
was really slow but after some waiting I managed to browse
through the headlines of Finnish newspapers.
29.12.2006 Dalat - Saigon
Another painful bus journey ahead. I had already mentally
prepared for the 7-hour trip. The bus was supposed to leave
already at seven o'clock but as I suspected it was almost
8.30 when all the passengers had been located. The bus was
fairly new and comfortable but still the speed was pretty
low as the roads were bad and traffic horrible. There were
sporadic stops for obvious and less obvious reasons. There
was also one flat tyre which caused an additional stop of
over 30 minutes.
Actually I was not really surprised when
it was almost 6 o'clock when we finally arrived in Saigon. I
booked a hotel room from the "Mini Hotel Alley" - a narrow
street lined up with narrow buildings that were small
family-owned hotels. The room had two (mini) balconies, that
offered an interesting view over the rooftops. I was pretty
exhausted after the long bus ride so I did not feel like
walking or exploring the nightlife of Saigon. I decided to
visit Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow so after buying a ticket I
quickly returned to hotel and went to sleep.
30.12.2006 Saigon (Cu Chi)
for a day trip. As I had spent considerable amoun of time by
sitting in a bus yesterday I decided to make just a half-day
trip to Cu Chi (the other alternative being to spend the
whole day with a tour that would have included interesting
Cao Dai pagoda as well). The tour starts pretty much in time
and after one-hour bus ride we arrive at the site. The place
is quite impressive - even though it is obvious that at
least some of the constructions are reproduced after the war.
Anyway there are for example traps and trenches to be
explored. There is also a shooting range where anybody can
try shooting with a AK-47 - I did not quite feel like
shooting as it just reminded me of army. Finally there was a
chance to try crawling in the actual tunnels. The first
tunnel was an "extended" version with dim lights - meaning
that the diameter of the tunnel was bigger than in the
original ones. Anyway it was really an unpleasant experience
and I was all sweaty and dirty after about 50 meters of
crawling. I decided to skip the crawl in the original sized
tunnel. Before leaving the area we were offered a
traditional Viet Kong meal - meaning grilled manioc. Not too
I was back in Saigon at around 2 o'clock.
Now I had the chance to visit "Reunification Palace" as it
was closed about one week ago. It was definitely one of the
highlights of Saigon - a fascinating building full of luxury
objects and furniture from the 70s. The most interesting
rooms were the big meeting rooms with ancient phones and
microphones, the "gambling room" and the "war room" in the
basement. I also managed to visit "Fine Arts Museum" just
before closing time - not too impressive as I was expecting
more of paintings representing socialist realism. Instead
there were mostly war-inspired paintings and countless
ancient Buddha statues. On my way back to hotel I bought a
durian and some rambutans from the marketplace. So after the
challenging task of cutting durian I had five delicious
slices of the king of the fruits. I was pretty tired already
but did a small walk in the surrounding area before chilling
out on the balcony.
31.12.2006 Saigon - Singapore
morning in Saigon was cloudy. I was apparently used to
waking up early already so I was awake already at 8 o'clock.
My plan was to do some shopping before heading to the
airport so I walked again to marketplace. After some
bargaining I found what I was looking for - two t-shirts
($3) and a fake TAG Heuer watch. I had a late breakfast from
a street vendor and some fresh coconut milk (from a coconut
- highly recommended!). I picked up my backpack from hotel
and took a taxi to airport.
The flight was again a pleasant one. In
Singapore I had booked a 4-star hotel to celebrate new year.
The hotel was located outside the downtown area and I got a
room that was not properly cleaned up - not too promising. I
spend a while at the swimming pool and try the Swedish sauna
(cold room where you have to wear swimming trunks).
I leave the hotel after nine to
experience the local new year celebrations. There is a huge
number of people around and everybody seems to be heading to
the "Esplanade" where there is going to be the official
fireworks. Everybody tries to get as close to shoreline as
possible. It still quite warm so walking around in the big
crowd is painful. I visit "Museum of Asian Cultures" that
has free admission tonight. The fireworks start in time and
it is really impressive. In about five minutes there must be
hundreds of bombs (and an awful lot of money) sent to the
sky. People are screaming but in general everybody behaves
very well - nobody is boozing and only a few people are even
smoking. After midnight most people start to leave for their
I want to continue celebrations and my
intention is to visit the famous Zouk Club. I can't find the
place from the map so I take a taxi - just to realize that
the club is actually just a couple of blocks away from my
hotel. Admission fee is expensive (25€) as I expected. The
place is very crowded and there are three separate rooms. In
addition to the main room (Zouk) there is a hip hop / rnb
room Phuture and the house club Velvet Underground (which
seems to have the same logo as the club in London). Phuture
is not my cup of tea so I spend my night mostly in Zouk or
Velvet Underground. It is hard to get an understanding of
the stylish venue as the place is so crowded. Danny Tenaglia
is playing a marathon set in the main room - quite hard
sounds ranging from tech house to tribal techno. Too hard
for me so spend the last hour in Velvet listening to soulful
and uplifting house tunes (with live bongo drums). Compared
to clubs in many other countries the overall vibe is not
that wild or relaxed as I expected - must be a cultural
thing (or because people seem to drink quite little).
As it is almost 4 AM I'm feeling pretty much exhausted and
feeling like walking the short way back to hotel. I send a
couple SMS's to wish happy new year to people back home and
try to get some sleep.
01.01.2007 Singapore - Frankfurt -
did not sleep well and I wake up as the cleaning lady knocks
on my door. I also feel that my stomach is not quite OK -
probably the compulsory diarrhea is soon coming. Anyway I
get up to do my final sightseeing tour during this trip. I
check out from the hotel and take the underground to
downtown. I've seen most of the sights already during my
previous visit so I try to locate some new ones. I check out
the Esplanade (during daytime this time). I also visit a
couple of old favourites of mine like "Old Police Station".
I'm still really tired as I realize that I've followed the
river to wrong direction - I basically return to my hotel
accidentally. I continue to Chinatown that proves to be a
good choice. There is a surprisingly crowded and chaotic
marketplace in the middle of the sleeping town. You could
buy anything from electronics to clothes here - I don't
quite feel like bargaining so I visit a nearby hindu temple
to get some peace and silence.
I'm starting to feel totally exhausted
so I return to hotel and a rest for two hours at the
swimming pool. Before leaving for airport I return briefly
to Chinatown to buy some tea (and a Chinese tea mug). Then
it is about the time to start the journey back home. There
is about 20 hours of travelling still ahead and I should
back to work tomorrow.
Anyway once again a good trip - even
though I could not find the perfect beach in Vietnam there
were lots of interesting sights and beautiful nature. So
here I am, at the rainy airport of Frankfurt waiting for the
final flight. Over and out.