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 photo gallery.

Places visited:

  1. Saigon
  2. Mui Ne
  3. Dalat

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 as Thailand.

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 meal.

22.12.2006 Saigon
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 one hour.

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 scenery.

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 price.

28.12.2006 Dalat
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 religious artifacts.

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 producing.

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)
Day 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 delicious.

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
Last 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 homes.

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 - Helsinki
I 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. 

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