Nha Trang – Little Russia

Nha Trang – Little Russia

Nha Trang (pron. Na Chan) on the south central coast is a popular stopover for many backpackers and tourists. Like most towns it has it’s specific tourist area, but unlike the remainder of Vietnam, is dominated by Cyrillic language signs above the restaurants and shops – illustrating how popular it is with Russian tourists.

Due to the largest Soviet port outside Russia being based a few kilometres south at Cam Ranh from 1979 until 2002, when it was converted into a civil base, Russians have enjoyed the delights of one of the World’s most attractive bays, with its islands and resorts. Vinpearl Island (or Mon Tre), reached by a series of 8 Eiffel tower copies suspending the longest cable car system in Asia.

There are in excess of 700 flights plus cruise ships catering for the Russian market with a monopoly held by the travel firm, Pegas, indicating the tourism investment catering to Russian visitors.

Viet-Russ roundabout
Oceanographic Institute

The working Institute of Oceanography is a must see for visitors to the port area. We spent a half day looking around which the children loved and I also found interesting.

I’m always surprised at the number of complaints on the review sites against going here, when I’ve seen many more poorly kept animals in European zoos than here. I’m not suggesting Vietnam or Asia has a better record and personally I don’t like to see animals caged, especially birds and sea animals, but in the interests of scientific research the collaborations by this institute with its counterparts elsewhere have been invaluable especially with their research in areas such as the Spratley islands.

Oceanographic Inst
Oceanographic Inst
Long Son Pagoda entrance
Long Son Pagoda

Long Son Pagoda, about 1/2 kilometre from the Train station is an impressive sight with its Gautama Buddha (the traditional figure of Buddha) 152 steps up overlooking the town and guarding the cemetery at it’s feet.

It was originally built in 1886 but had to be rebuilt first due to typhoon damage, where it was relocated to its present spot. It was heavily damaged in 1968, as a result of the Vietnam war when it was rebuilt.

As the headquarters of the Buddhist Association in Khanh Hoa district since 1936 it was rebuilt although suspended due to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

 

Po Nagar Cham towers
Po Nagar Cham Towers

The Cham towers at Po Nagar are a particularly good example of Cham architecture. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries they are still used today for worship.

The site is well appointed with a small garden and museum, explaining a little more about the Champa race, when the towers were re-discovered, excavated and restored over the last one hundred years.

If you’ve been reading my previous posts you may know that the Cham peoples ruled the Vietnamese peninsula, including parts of present day Laos and Cambodia from approximately the 2nd to the rule of the Nguyen dynasty in 1832 when they were absorbed into present day Vietnam.

Po Nagar
Po Nagar Cham towers
Po Nagar Cham towers
Tran Quoc Tuan Monument
Tran Quoc Tuan monument

Prince Tran Quoc Tuan (Chan Kwok Twan) commanded the Dai Viet (one of the old names for Viet Nam) and repelled three major Mongol invasions under Kublai Khan in the 13th Century.

This is what travelling is about when you see figures like this and research them as I was always taught the Mongols defeated everyone in their path – obviously not the case and possibly unknown outside of Vietnam. He is also known as General Tran Hung Dao (Chan Hun Daw).

Due to his popularity there are a number of major streets named after him & statues dotted across the country.

Tran Quoc Tuan Monument
The sights and accommodation

It is tempting to want to cram everything into a tour of a country we might not visit again for a long time, but we’re now taking it slower with trying to connect to the locals, learn some of the language and culture, which isn’t always easy in a tourist resort.

Although there are many more things to do in Nha Trang, we only did a handful, although I did take in five days of scuba diving (Another post due soon on diving in Vietnam).

As we’re budget travellers by choice, hoping we can bootstrap a number of business opportunities whilst travelling, we’re always looking for cheap, but CLEAN, accommodation. When we initially arrived we stayed at Queen 7 hotel, which was adequate, although too small and with no disrespect to the thousands of Russian holidaymakers we decided to find something out of the centre.

This is where our habits are starting to change as we need some space to clean, cook, eat etc. to be comfortable. We stayed here for 2 nights and then looked around locally after searching the map. We found a 2 bed apartment, managed by two Ukrainian women, Homestay ‘Margo’, complete with kitchenette & free use of the sunroof balcony (although it’s too hot) which was $25 per night on the north of the bay at Hon Chong beach, where we stayed for the remainder of our time in Nha Trang.

 

Viet-Russ monument
Next stop: The UNESCO site of the ancient village of Hoi An. Only a 12 hour overnight bus ride!
Hoi An panorama

Đà Lạt – City of Eternal Spring

Đà Lạt – City of Eternal Spring

Dalat – City of Eternal Spring

Đà Lạt or Dalat is a 4 hour drive in a standard bus from Mui Ne or 6 hour drive from Saigon makes for a very interesting journey over some dramatic, sweeping hairpin turns offering some great scenery for the drive up 1500metres to Da Lat. I can imagine the bike ride is exhilarating.
Dalat was created as a hilltop town in the early 20th century, by the suggestion of Vietnam’s favourite Frenchman, Alexandre Yersin (student to Louis Pasteur & established Vietnam’s Pasteur Institute).
The city is much more temperate than the lowlands of Vietnam, ranging from 15 to 25 degrees (60 to 75 F).

The main town surrounds the Xuan Huong Lake, which makes a nice walk to visit the various attractions. Make sure to take a trip on the ‘Kitschy’ Pedalos (150,000 for 1 hour).

There is a wide range of accommodation catering for all tastes. It’s not as busy in many places which is apparent when you take an impromptu stop for a coffee and snack, as often the establishments don’t have much choice on the already limited menu.

Street food for $4
Dalat night market
Food and Drink

We stayed at a place called White Star hotel, which was 200m to a great bakery-restaurant and hotel called Thien Hoa, offering an excellent and cheap range of homemade pastries, bread and cakes. Perfect for when you have a room only booking for breakfast for the kids and adults alike.

However for the more discerning there are a variety of nice restaurants, especially around the backpacker area. One of note is Artist alley restaurant – just be prepared to pay more.

The daily night market, which is also closed off to traffic at weekend evenings, is an excellent place to try the street food. We ate for the grand total of approx 4$ including a beer! We didn’t have a clue what a lot of things were and English is generally limited, so it was a case of pointing & hand gestures.

Dalat is the main area in Southern Vietnam for tea plantations and their own Dalat wine, which is fair (Red that is as the white was undrinkable I had).

A local speciality is Trá Atiso or Artichoke tea, which is an acquired taste. We also tried the locally made green tea, which is redolent of a mild Oolong style tea.

Crazy House or Hang Nga Villa

If you have young children, from 2-3 years onwards you must make a trip to Hang Nga villa, or as it’s known ‘the Crazy house’. A tree house built in a style similar to Gaudi, but still unfinished or continuing work. The house has ten themed bedrooms ranging from Spider room to Gourd room, which can be booked. I assume you have to be prepared to leave early before the visitors arrive to climb around the place and peer into your room.

Amelie loved this place, as fearless as children can be even wanting to climb over the path winding over the roof with its 50cm high walls (No ‘elf’n’safety in action here). Scared-of-heights Dad didn’t fancy this so we stayed on the lower levels.

I just hope it gets finished eventually as the rear upper floors have been like a building site for a few years.

Crazy House - Dalat
Crazy House - Dalat
Crazy House - Dalat Gourd room
Chùa Linh Phước Pagoda

8km outside Dalat is possibly one of the finest Pagoda’s we’ve been to with its intricate carvings and the walk to the top of the Pagoda and around the outside walkway for the view (being acrophobic I left that to Jacqueline!).

The Pagoda was built in 1949, with its ornate dragon shaped design made from broken pieces of glass. The Pagoda is 36m high with an 8,500 Kg bell, where many wishes are written on paper and tabbed to the last.  The craftsmanship which goes into making this is amazing as are the many statues of Buddha.

A word of warning for many Pagodas in Vietnam; either come fully clothed, covering shoulders and legs for both men and women or have a sarong or large towel to cover yourself. This is the same for the Cham towers and Buddhist places of worship. No cameras are allowed within the prayer areas, which is understandable as I wouldn’t want my photo taken during any period of quiet, thoughtful, meditation.

Chu Linh Phuoc Temple
Chu Linh Phuoc prayer hall
Chu Linh Phuoc Bell
Dalat Railway station
Dalat Railway station

The Dalat railway hosts one of the oldest trains in Dalat, although it was closed during the Vietnam war, it re-opened with a 7km service on an old carriage to the village of Trai Mat, nearby where the Chua Linh Phuoc Pagoda is. It’s a nice walk along the lake and up the hill to the station, grabbing a CaPhe Sua Da or ice cream (Kem) to eat on the way back.

Lam Vien square, Dalat
Other things to do

Our stay was limited whilst in Dalat, and although the respite from the lowland heat of Saigon and Mui Ne, I can’t say it was our favourite place, but it’s worth exploring Datanla waterfalls with the toboggan to the bottom and possibly further afield the Elephant falls.
Dalat cable car also takes you to Truc Lam Pagoda and Tuyen Lam Lake. This is a working Zen Buddhist monastery.

Next stop: Nha Trang, where I hope to be using some of the diving kit I’ve brought with me, as well as see some of the sights on the central south coast.

NhaTrang from Po Nagar

Mui Ne – a sleepy fishing village

Mui Ne – a sleepy fishing village

Mui Ne is approximately 220 Km directly east from Saigon. It is popular as the Surfing, Kitesurfing and windsurfing capital of Vietnam, if not SE Asia.
We set off from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) at 11am via one of the (almost infamous) Hanh Cafe buses (according to the many posts on bus travel in Vietnam). It takes approx 4.1/2 hours arriving between 4 and 5pm. We didn’t have any problems. The buses are a bit tired, but the drive was peaceful & certainly scenic.

KeGa lighthouse
Bored…

As family travellers with 2 young children aged 1 and almost 3, we found it a bit boring at first. Apart from walking on the very narrow beach we can’t really take part in many outdoor pursuits the area is popular for.

Until… we found some sights off the beaten path, but also some way out of the town.

Fairy spring
Locals at the Fairy spring
Fairy Spring

The Fairy spring is a small waterfall about 40 minute walk from the beach road along a nice stream you can walk through with some great sandstone formations in varying colours of red, yellow and white.

Unfortunately our visit was spoilt somewhat by a guide who forced himself on us & then demanded 500k VND ($23 USD) for the privilege, which he wasn’t getting. I suppose that’s the price we pay for being privileged Westerners and a lesson in negotiating or being clear when we get some random follower who appears to want to become our friend.

Don’t get a cab immediately after leaving, as the areas a bit scruffy. Walk for 700m in the Phan Thiet direction – There’s a nice food court cafe on the way back for a beer to chill out to, which is the cheapest & best quality food we’ve had so far – Dong Vui. The beer was 10k VND (approx 40 Euro Cents).

Ke Ga Lighthouse and fishing village

We booked a private day tour in a clapped out old Jeep, with a shady looking driver who made no attempt to speak with us. We knew why when we got to Ke Ga lighthouse as the 10min, 500m boat ride to the lighthouse island became 500k VND (which should have been approx 200k for all of us). Maybe it was karma for not paying the guide what he wanted the day before!

Ke Ga is a fishing village with a rock promontory with a low tide causeway similar to St.Michaals Mount (UK) or Mont St.Michel (France). At low tide you can cross by foot.

The lighthouse was built in 1899 by the French and is the oldest in Vietnam. It’s a beautiful view and although a little tired it reminded me of a scene from the film Kung Fu Panda with the Zen placement of the trees, steps and gardens on this rugged little island.

KeGa Lighthouse
Reclining Buddha at Tacu mountain
Ta Cu Mountain Buddhist temple and cable car

Amazing – if you go to Mui Ne or Phan Thiet, this has to be on your list of things to do.

There is both a hike over the mountain or by cable car over to get to this Temple where the largest reclining Buddha in Asia was built. With Amelie and Soraya we obviously took the easier of the two paths, where the views over Vietnam all around are amazing. The temples are a nice feature and is a worthwhile ‘pilgrimage’

The reclining buddha is 49m long, signifying 49 days the Buddha spent meditating under the Bodhi tree and 49 years preaching, built in 1966.

One point of caution, bring some sunscreen – I didn’t and have suffered for a few days afterwards. (Aloe Vera is available in tubs at all the local pharmacies, as I’m obviously not the only idiot abroad!)

TaCu mountain mini Pagoda
View from the top TaCu mtn
Amelie and the Dragon
Poshanu Cham towers
Jacqueline & Soraya
The Champa period of Vietnam.

It’s sometimes easy to forget when travelling, the very ancient history of many of the peoples in Vietnam, such as the Champa period which dates back almost 3000 years.

There are many Cham towers dotted around the country such as in Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and the 70+ towers in My Son near Hoi An (on the central coast). Reminiscent of a larger community who inhabited Vietnam from 1000 BC to the mid 15th century when they inhabited the Champa region (approximately where Vietnam & Cambodia lies today) are the CHam people. Predominantly Hindu, the Cham are alleged to originate from the Dai An mountains in Khanh Hoa province (where Nha Trang is located), possibly originating in Borneo (East Malaysia, immediately south of Vietnam).

The Cham are now classed as a minority group, with approximately 160,000 remaining, they were almost wiped out by Emperor Minh Mang in the mid 19th Century.

The towers of Poshanu Cham, albeit small are a worthwhile sight to see such a contrast between the Buddhist temples of Vietnam and the many Hindu influenced Champa towers dotted around Vietnam. It also gives an insight into the very long history of such a proud people as the Vietnamese, rather than the Vietnam war, which today is what most people know of local history.

Ca Ong - Van Thuy Tu temple
Whale Temple or Van Thuy Tu

Our final day in Mui Ne we explored Phan Thiet a little and visit the Whale Temple, a small old temple, built in 1762  dedicated to the sea and for all the fishermen the towns of Mui Ne and Phan Thiet were built upon. Ca Ong (Whale) is highly revered as it is seen as a protector.

The highlight however was talking to three older gents sat in the courtyard who offered us coffee and were obviously interested in who we were, why we were there, whilst finding out one of their daughters had married an English chap, named Daniel, who was an English teacher in Phan Thiet!

On our way back to the town, we passed a school and were mobbed from the gates by all the children trying out their English skills on us. Shouting “Hello”, “What’s your name?” and replying with “what’s your name?” for them to tell us. It was such a sight to see the smiles on these children as they tested their language skills on us!

Within the city along the river bank is a monument dedicated to the first Emperor Le Loi of Vietnam, who also known as the ‘pacifying king’ (Binh Dinh Vuong) from his reign in the 15th Century.

Schoolchildren in Phan Thiet
Emperor Le Loi
Emperor Le Loi
Van Thuy Tu Temple
Mui Ne accommodation
Scratching the surface…

In retrospect (as I’m writing this a week or so after we left), we could have stayed a lot longer in Mui Ne as we only started to scratch the surface by getting to know some of the locals. It was a wonderful place to visit and chill out and also extremely cheap to live if you know where.

This seems to be a common theme as everywhere we go we’re paying tourist prices for the first few days until we can find something both more convenient, slightly off the well worn tourist track and much cheaper/better value.

Saigon…The crazy city that is Ho Chi Minh

Saigon…The crazy city that is Ho Chi Minh

Saigon collage

Saigon. Sounds exotic but as a city it’s one of the craziest we’ve been to. It’s now officially called Ho Chi Minh (or HCMC) after the US left after the Vietnam war. We arrived on the 28th March after three flights and 2 layovers via Finnair from Berlin-Helsinki-Hong Kong and finally at Tan Son Nhat International (SGN) airport approx 30 minutes drive north of the central district.

Where to stay

Saigon is split into Districts, appearing to emanate out from the main centre. We stayed in District 1, in a budget hotel called Phan Lan 2 in the backpackers area just off what is known as ‘Backpacker street’, or Pham Ngu Lau. Although basic it met all our needs and I would recommend for the prices. However if we were staying longer we might have stayed further outside the central district, which would probably be cheaper still.

If you’re on a short stay and reasonable budget there are some tremendous hotels around the Opera house and Saigon square.

We used Agoda so far for all our bookings, which seems to have worked for short term rentals. The link at the bottom of the page can be used to book with Agoda.

Phan_Lan_2 hotel_Saigon
Phan_Lan_2 hotel_room_Saigon
Crocodile at Saturday market
Pho Ga (Chicken Pho)
Pasteur St brewery

Food and Drink

The food is fantastic and so cheap and we’re staying in the tourist area of town where I’d expect it to be more expensive. Pho (pronounced ‘Fu’) is surprisingly tasty if you know what to do with the leaves left on the side of your table, by breaking them up and adding them to your soup, it adds so many different flavours. My favourite is Pho Ga (Chicken), but it comes in many varieties such as Pho Bo (Pork), Pho Hai San (Seafood) etc.
The beer is also cheap at an average 25,000 Dong (VND) or 1 Euro for a bottle of Tiger beer or the local brew, Saigon Green, red and special. If you look at some of the cheaper bars then you can get Saigon beer for as little as 15,000 VND or Euro 0.60.
There are some new microbreweries opening up generally with expat assistance, such as Phat Rooster and Pasteur street brewery, but these are generally more expensive(65,000 VND or 3 Euro for a small 1/2 pint/230ml) but taste like artisan beers.
Like in all asian countries they have their fair share of questionable foods, such as boiled fertilised duck eggs (where the embryo has started to grow), Snakehead soup, Phá lấu (Intestine stew: Pig & cow intestines boiled down into salty broth), Snails and Frog (in any form you can imagine). You can see the very french influence with their equivalent to Escargot, Grenouille and Tête de veau taken to another level, but maybe the english black and white pudding has a similar effect on many!
Considering our site is dedicated to Tea, we haven’t found a decent tea shop as coffee is generally drunk everywhere, with the favourite being Vietnamese iced coffee made with condensed milk with coffee dripped over it then added ice (Cà phê sữa đá). The budget hotels don’t have kettles either so have had Tea withdrawal symptoms whilst in Saigon.

Saturday market

Things to do

The ten days we stayed we were limited to what we could see considering a population of approximately 10 million (and the many events for catering their needs). Staying around district 1 meant we got to see most of the sights within walking distance and feel the ‘grittier’ side of the area. With a baby and a toddler there are a few things we can’t do yet but didn’t feel particularly limited.

These included the War Remnants museum, which I didn’t feel the need to be reminded of the horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese (especially after speaking with someone who had nightmares after visiting) or driving hours to walk along the remnants of the Cu Chi tunnels, the labyrinth of underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong.

However we’d recommend, considering we have 2 young children travelling with us:

  • Saigon Square
  • Notre Dame cathedral & the surrounding area.
  • Bitexco skytower
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda (73 Ð Mai Thi Luu) built 1909
  • There are a few public parks where you can grab a coffee and let the kids run themselves tired.
  • The Opera house is worth going to if there are any child-friendly shows on.
  • Water puppet show
  • Take a Cyclo / Trike tour around the city.

As with any new city, it’s worth walking around just to take in the culture, flavours, sights, sounds and smells of the area.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Hainam stylish hotel
Water puppet show
Mopeds in Saigon

Getting around

Buggies (or Strollers) are not catered for as the pavement has been adopted as parking space for the millions of mopeds. Unfortunately this means walking in the road most of the time which although doesn’t sound safe, we never felt in any danger from the generally slow moving mopeds. However the more sensitive might not agree.
A joke seems to be green light means go, whilst red light means, still can go!

The down side of this is the fact that both Amelie and Soraya are both walking & being pushed around by buggy at exhaust level & I wouldn’t imagine an extended stay in Saigon for health reasons.
(There are in excess of 8.5 million mopeds/scooters, almost a ratio of 1 to 1 with the population.)

If you need to go further taxis are everywhere and relatively cheap. The 30 minute cab ride from the airport to District 1 is approx $10 USD

Too many mopeds in Saigon
TEP Wireless
Keeping in touch

We didn’t rush getting a SIM as after 20 hours of travelling, we just wanted to get to the hotel. For the first day we used our TEP wireless device for access until we had found the best SIM card & rate. The TEP is not cheap but serves its purpose when in transit or just arriving in country, giving us time to search for the best rate between competing mobile phone providers. I did a lot of research on the various options before opting on this so get in touch if you want more info.
We opted to go with Viettel from a local Viettel store, after hearing the street vendors aren’t licensed and people getting cut off. It cost approx 10 Euro for 2 x 10GB monthly data SIM cards, which we found was half the price of the same deal at the airport.

Keep following us as we search for the best places in Asia for a family with young children. Next stop Mui Ne, approximately 5 hours drive by coach from Saigon.

Post office map

The Seychelles… In pictures

The Seychelles… In pictures

 

As we mention in our introduction, Jacqueline and I met whilst in Dubai. I was running a division of an oilfield services company, whilst Jacqui was working for the Middle East sales agents for a major swiss Chocolatier. We had been dating for a few months and went on holiday to the Seychelles in November 2013.

This is a picture story of that special time.

Overlooking Victoria

 

The Seychelles. That beautiful group of islands in the Indian ocean, approx 1000 miles (1500 Km) east of mainland Africa. We travelled to Mahe, Praslin and La Digue over a two week period. These are the 3 most famous of the 115 islands which make up the Seychelles.

Victoria is the quaint capital just north of the airport. It’s a 3 1/2 hour flight from Dubai & often the main hub to travel through if coming from Europe.

Kempinski images
Post treatment

Our first stop was at the Kempinski Seychelles resort hotel in Mahe, nestled in a beautiful, natural bay. The stay was ‘eventful’ to say the least.

The first day on the beach we both got badly bitten by mosquitos. If I hate anything more on holiday it’s mosquitos & the effect they have on me when bitten. It’s also easy to forget, being near the equator does make a difference, as we suffered from minor sunburn. I also had an accident opening a bread roll with a blunt bread knife resulting in a trip to the hospital and stitches.

However this was eclipsed by the beauty of these small islands. We had a great time as the following photos show.

 

First rest, recuperate & explore the island of Mahe

Distance from La Digue
Jacqueline on Mahe beach
Critters
Victoria clock tower
Seytea - Mahe

The Big Day:   26th November 2013

We told everyone at home we were going to Vietnam on vacation, including parents, relatives and friends. We got married in a surprise ceremony on the beach in Baie Lazare at the Kempinski, with the local staff as witnesses & a tremendous backdrop of the sea and the sun.

Evening was spent having dinner by candlelight on the beach in a private tent.

Stuart & Jacqueline wedding day
Wedding rings
Cutting the cake
Stuart & Jacqueline wedding day
Stuart & Jacqueline wedding day
Wedding breakfast
Kempinski Lagoon
Wed day in the bush

Our surprise wedding

 

The day after under the arches
Bird twitchers delight

Praslin and La Digue

We took a short 20 minute flight to Praslin, staying at Paradise Sun. Whilst there we also took a one day trip to La Digue to the famous Anse Source d’Argent beach. It’s a gorgeous small island, which you can only travel around by bike or cart.

Paradise Sun in the rain
Praslin Snorkelling
Seytea Jacqueline
Anse Source d'Argent
Air Seychelles
Mahe Port Glaud
Seychelles sunset
Return to Dubai
Hello Dubai

We never did make it to Vietnam, but we’re aiming to correct that this year (2017).

Do you have any ‘most memorable’ trips? Feel free to share them here.

Jacqueline Statue of Liberty
Itinerary:

Stuart and Jacqueline stayed at three hotels in the Seychelles for two weeks: