Phnom Penh – The troubled capital of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh – The troubled capital of Cambodia.

After Siem Reap, we stupidly decided to transfer to Phnom Penh and extend our visas there which takes a week. In hindsight, we wished we would have extended our stay in Siem Reap and extended our Visas there. (we didn’t do our research very well here for the visa options!, but the not so friendly customs officer in Hanoi, Vietnam didn’t help either)

There isn’t really that much to do in Phnom Penh apart from the Royal Palace, National Museum ( where there are a few original relics from Angkor) and the killing fields. It’s a worthwhile trip, but only for a maximum 3-4 days. As we travel as a family, I would n’t recommend SL21 and the killing fields for the faint-hearted and very young children.

Wat Phnom – Birthplace of Phnom Penh
King Ponhea Yat – the last Khmer King

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is a sight to behold. The buildings and mausoleums dedicated to the Royal family are tremendous. The monarchy is still held in high regard in Cambodia.

National Museum

When in the Angkor Museum, Siem Reap, there is reference many times to the original artefact being at the National Museum in PP. This is a slight exaggeration, as the museum is very small and many of the artefacts are in overseas Museums, such as Paris.

You can easily get around the museum within a half day.  It’s a worthwhile visit including one of the many not-for-profit cafes or restaurants nearby.

One of the torture rooms – you can make out a picture on the wall of one of the remaining victims left behind after the Khmer Rouge evacuated quickly.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – SL21

If you’re interested in modern history, a highlight (or lowlight depending on your viewpoint), was the visit to the ex-School-turned-prison for the Khmer Rouge in the late 70’s. The history of the Khmer Rouge and a chronicle of the Cambodian Genocide as part of Pol Pot’s ‘experiment’ into collectivist farms and forced labour. He was responsible for the deaths of approximately 25% of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1 to 3 million people.

Bear in mind the Khmer Rouge was in alliance with the Vietnamese Government against US-backed forces so the whole area is linked to the Vietnam War & so-called ‘Communist’ threat raging across Asia at the time.

Of 20,000 inmates of Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors, of which two were in attendance, Chum Mey being one of them. It is an uncomfortable experience meeting the survivors of such a camp. What do you say? I was lost for words when Chum Mey smiled and nodded to me. All I could think to do was return his smile, with my hand across my heart and lightly bow to him (as is common across Asia).

Kaung Kek Leu (also known as ‘Comrade Duch’) the prison commandant was sentenced only in 2010 to life imprisonment by a UN war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.

It is a harrowing, unforgettable visit which certainly tests your emotions.

Tuol Sleng Memorial within the gardens

Ghosts of Tuol Sleng

As everyone who has visited Tuol Sleng – I too have been stunned by the photos of the victims staring at me from the past.

“Ghosts of Tuol Sleng” is an attempt to shed new light on the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, by presenting them in a different way than the usual mug shot, that everyone who visits Tuol Sleng will be familiar with.

By photographing the individual pictures in different light conditions, and with visitors to the museum interacting, my aim is to revitalize the victims, show them as human beings – who like you and I – just wanted to live, but never got the chance, dehumanized by a gruesome regime.

None of the pictures are manipulated, but are reflections of the light cast by the images on the glass that protects the photos.

Photographing the reflection of the image instead of the image itself, a ghostlike feeling passes through the pictures.

According to popular Khmer belief, a person who hasn’t been given a proper burial will have to live on as a ghost, unable to find peace. While shooting the pictures this was unknown to me.

When a person dies in Cambodia, the body is usually taken to the local monastery, where it’s cremated. At the funeral, Buddhist monks will chant prayers, to comfort the family and give the mortal’s soul a safe passage to the afterlife.

The gact that none of Tuol Slengs inmates were given a proper burial after being executed in the Killing fields at Choeung Ek 15km. outside Phnom Penh – is a continuing source of suffering for surviving family members.

Of Tuol Slengs 20,000 inmates only 7 survived.

Contrary to popular belief – we can only hope that the victims of Tuol Sleng have been able to find peace, and won’t have to live like ghosts in the afterlife. It’s hard to imagine that their suffering should continue after what they endured. I prefer to believe that it didn’t.

Yours sincerely,

Stefan V. Jensen

It is worth going to Phnom Penh but for only a long weekend, as then you will have covered most of the sights.

We stayed at the NKS hotel also known as Ny Ka Smy Hotel, which was one of the cleanest hotels we have stayed in. It is in an upcoming area of PP, a short walk away from the Russian market, with many bars. Unfortunately, the open sewer runs beside the hotel and we all fell ill. I assume when it rains the lack of a hygienic drain system means you walk the dirt into your room, even though it is common practice to take your shoes off at the door. Young kids with a severe bout of projectile vomiting is not fun.

It’s not really a place we enjoyed (possibly due to falling ill), but also due the lack of interesting activities.

Why troubled as I state in the title? While we were there the current ruling party declared they could dissolve any other party they wished. It doesn’t sound good for any form of simple democracy that exists at present.

 

Next Stop – Sihanoukville

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

Hanoi is a big city so my review can only cover what we did and where we stayed as a family. I can imagine there is definitely something for everyone here – families, teenagers and hedonistic ‘Kidults’.

Our travels started in Vietnam, in Saigon. We stayed initially for 3-4 nights. Great if you want to burn-out within a few weeks: Packing and unpacking, travelling with all the stuff we carry and only just getting to know an area. We only venture for half days because with a three-year-old and one year old; they need their rest. We ended staying at each place longer and longer and finally in Hanoi for one month as a base.

We stayed in a new apartment 15 minutes south of the centre surrounded by shops with a shopping mall in the basement (Times City Megamall). The apartments each had children’s play areas with swings and slides between each of the blocks. It gave us the freedom to go out when we wanted, unlike a hotel and eat when we wanted.

Taxis cost USD $3-4 to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I class as the centre. Uber and Grab both operate in Vietnam and are very competitive. I wonder how people make a living when they charge $2 for a taxi journey but illustrates how cheap living can be in Vietnam.

Hoan Kiem or ‘Central’ Hanoi

Hoan Kiem lake or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. From the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his sword after defeating the Ming Chinese to the turtle king who lives in the lake. The lake is surrounded by the main centres of Hanoi. To the east is the French quarter. The north and west are the old quarter, and the south is the University, embassy and main department store shopping district. Further afield are other areas such as the Presidential palace and mausoleum, again surrounded by more embassies.

The Old Quarter

is relatively easy to navigate. A rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese will help you find your way around. Each street is named after the goods originally sold. What is interesting is to see such narrow shop fronts, originally based on how much they would be taxed. Hence the houses are called Tube houses, which could be as little as 3m wide x 60m long.

The old name was ‘36 streets’ after the ‘guilds’ or groups who set up in the area. It is thought there were originally 36 streets making up the Old Quarter. Many start with the name ‘Hang’, meaning merchandise or shop.

Hang Bac – Silver
Hang Ca – Fish
Hang Bo – Baskets
Hang Bong – Cotton
Hang Chai – bottles
Hang Da – Leather
Hang Giay – Shoes etc., etc.

These were the names from approx. The 13th century, so it‘s no surprise the shops sell different items today. You can still see many commonplace items sold along the same street though. Another example of regional working groups benefiting each other on a local basis.

While Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter are generally where tourists visit. The expats regularly frequent the Tay Ho area surrounding West Lake. The more affluent side of town. A large freshwater lake with approximately 17km of shoreline. Attractions include the Ho Chi Minh museum and Presidential Palace area, a short walk south of the lake.
Visit the oldest Buddhist Pagoda in Vietnam (Tran Quoc) on the causeway separating West Lake and Truc Bach. See the Bodhi tree (Religious Fig tree) planted from a seedling donated by the original tree from India. The tree the Buddha sat under and found spiritual enlightenment (or Bodhi).

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province – ‘The Old capital’

Ha Noi wasn’t always the capital of Vietnam. The capital of Dai Co Viet (Great Buddhist Viet), as Vietnam was formerly known was originally in Hoa Lu province some 100 km south of Ha Noi.
The Emperor Ly Thai To the founder of the Ly dynasty, (see pic) moved the capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Bin province to Thang Long. The original meaning Ascending Dragons (modern day Ha Noi) was far more exciting than Interior River!
The terrain was naturally defensive surrounded by the small but steep limestone mountains making the area almost impenetrable to invasion.
As well as the Hoa Lu temple complex Tam Coc village is a beautiful river setting where you can take a river cruise by a rower controlling the boat by their feet. (see photo)

The Temple of Literature

was originally built in 1070 by King Ly Than Tong to educate the bureaucrats and scholars of Dai Viet. It is a temple dedicated to Confucius where students still come to pray and make offerings in return for good results in their exams.
Each student had to read the four books and five classics as part of the traditional Confucian reading material. The books were all written by Confucius disciples and tested on each.
As the Brits have Oxford University, the Italians Bologna, Vietnam’s first university pre-dates or was built at a similar time in the 11th Century.
Unfortunately, it’s not a continuing University. It was a French war hospital during Tonkin times and has undergone some reconstruction.
It still doesn’t claim to be the earliest whose accolade goes to the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fes, Morocco from 859.

Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton)

Hoa Lo prison was initially set up as a French prison for Vietnamese political prisoners in the heart of Ha Noi. Nicknamed, the Ha Noi Hilton (allegedly due to the soft treatment of its US inmates) is famous for holding many US PoW. Most notably Governor (and former Presidential candidate) John McCain, after his plane was shot down in West Lake during the Vietnam War.
I still wonder what they call the Hilton hotel nearby?

In the area next to the citadel lies the Ha Noi Military History Museum. The Museum explains (from a Vietnamese viewpoint) the recent wars from the time of Dien Bien Phu. The lead-up to Vietnamese independence and the fall of French colonialism in 1954. There are the many US, French and Soviet built aircraft and military equipment confiscated after the Vietnam war. Many (defused) unexploded ordnance and guns confiscated after independence in 1975. It’s always interesting seeing the terminology, ‘American Imperialism’ on write-ups.

Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s affectionately known, died in 1969 aged 79. Against the wishes of his will, his body is on display at the Mausoleum in Da Binh square. Allegedly to allow all of Vietnams citizens to pay their respects after reunification in 1975.
Behind the Mausoleum are the one pillar Pagoda and his home, a modest stilted house. He chose not to live in the Presidential palace, preferring to live amongst his people.

The Museum of Ethnology

If the many tribes of Vietnam are of interest, but you don’t get a chance to visit any of the villages such as SaPa, then the Museum of Ethnology is well worth a visit to understand the genealogy, culture and language behind the many tribes which make up many of Vietnam’s people.
There is also an excellent photo gallery and mini museum by the French photographer, Rehahn in Hoi An worth visiting.

Get a Tour Guide

We stayed a month and still didn’t see many of the sights. I would recommend getting a tour guide for a day to take you around Hanoi area and to explore the various sites. It’s easy to get lost in the myriad streets. We used a free tour guide service for students who want to practise their English (http://hanoifreetourguides.com).
The girl provided, Huyen, was brilliant and explained so much about the area. The local cultural meanings behind the placement of altars (Feng Shui), gift offerings and general Buddhist practice was well received. Worth it for 1/2 day. We paid her meals & taxis as well as an extra tip for the day.

Our stay in Vietnam showed us a fiercely proud nation, with a willingness to embrace all nationalities.
We have never once felt unwelcome and often got mobbed by young children practising their English. Westerners including French and American are welcomed with open arms. Unlike the, often joking, animosity between French (Frogs), British (Le Rost Boeuf) and Germans (Krauts) which prevails across Europe.
The Vietnamese have an innate curiosity of everything Western and seeing a family with two blonde girls was no exception.

It is rapidly developing, which in some areas it needs to. It needs to balance this with retaining some of its historical and cultural charms. Too many high rise towers are being built, which the infrastructure cannot cope with. Traffic, especially in Saigon and Ha Noi can be a nightmare to navigate. The increased air pollution is a problem, while the overflowing drains during periods of heavy rain need urgent attention. An anti-litter campaign might also be useful as many areas are spoilt by the overload of plastic bags, which has become an ecological threat in some areas. This is the same so far of everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia.
The warmth and smiles of the Vietnamese people are addictive. I will certainly be looking to return in the future.

Hue – The Ancient Capital of Vietnam

Hue – The Ancient Capital of Vietnam

Hue – The imperial capital of Vietnam from the early 19th Century to 1945. The city predates this to the Nguyen Lords when, in 1600, Hue became the capital of Dai Viet or ‘Great Viet‘. The name ‘Viet’, originating from the Chinese ‘Yue’, meaning non-Chinese people from the South/Vietnam.
Reading the history of the Vietnamese people illustrates how long and impressive this country is. I recall in high school the introduction to the medieval ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution related to England and the United Kingdom. I presumed we (English) were so advanced alongside other Western economies surrounding its empire. Little did I realise how much longer a history many Asian countries, such as Vietnam had.
In 1902, the first Nguyen emperor, born Nguyen Phuc Anh, renamed himself Gia Long after reuniting Vietnam and overthrowing the Trinh Lords from the North. Gia Long changed his name from ‘Gia Dinh’ (present-day Saigon) and ‘Thang Long’ (present-day Hanoi) to represent the joining of the country.
The Nguyen Lords (often unrelated and known as the Vietnamese Shogun) de facto ruled the lower 2/3rds of Vietnam (known as ‘Dang Trong’) from 1558 until 1770. Gia Long was a nephew of the last of the Shoguns.
About 40% of Vietnamese are named Nguyen (pronounced Ng, with a guttural sound, similar to the ending of -ing, then Wee’yun) as it’s the most popular family name in Vietnam due to the trait of changing names to that of the current ruler to prevent earlier dynastic reprisals.

Entrance to the Citadel Hue
Vietnam flag at Hue Citadel - Largest in Vietnam
Mandarin corridors Hue

Gia Long renamed the country, Viet Nam, (Nam meaning South), while Hue had a new citadel built with French assistance.
The Citadel was built surrounded by a moat with walls 2km by 2km long.
Inside is the imperial city and within this lies the Purple Forbidden City, which was restricted only to those of the Emperor and his immediate family.
A visit to the Citadel is a must if you’re in Hue and if you’re a history buff, will easily take a full day of your time.

Hue Women

Hue appears different in many ways to the remainder of Vietnam as the layout, culture and food seemed different. Many of the foods available were developed to suit the more delicate tastes of the Emperor’s concubines & in keeping with royal tradition, had to be of a much higher standard than the rest of the country.

Most of the food has travelled across Vietnam now, but you can sense the influence, with foods such as Nem Lui (Spiced Pork/Beef on Lemongrass Skewers), Banh Beo (steamed rice cakes), Banh Khoai (Fried rice flour pancake with vegetables) amongst others.
If you travel to Hue, be sure to search out some of the food establishments. We went to different places & was impressed even with many of the open fronted, street food restaurants, especially for the prices and the quality.

The first thing to strike me about the layout is the first time we’ve been able to walk along the pavement with the buggy/stroller, without the pathways used as parking for mopeds – everything seems better planned & laid out.

Emperor’s Burial Tombs

The Emperor’s upon their death were buried in ornate tombs surrounded by an altar amidst beautiful scenery. We visited two – Minh Mang (born 1791-reigned 1820-1841), who ruled after Gia Long (Gia Long’s tomb is very simple and in ruins since the Vietnam war) and Khai Dinh (born 1895-reign 1916-1925).

The Nguyen Emperor’s nearing the end of their reign weren’t particularly liked for reasons such as their continued abuse of power and allowing the French to invade and become a colony state. Some were more popular than others.

Minh Mang was a good example. There was a revolt against Khai Dinh due to him increasing taxes to pay for his elaborate tomb. He ordered the arrest of many nationalist leaders such as Phan Boi Chau and being described (by Ho Chi Minh in his play ‘The Bamboo Dragon’) as a powerless puppet of the French regime.

Vietnamese Ao Dai
Minh Mang (born 1791, reign 1820-1841)

Minh Mang was the second Emperor who effectively closed off Vietnam, especially to the French Jesuit priests and embraced Confucian Buddhism. He banned all French missionaries from entering Vietnam and had all French vessels searched. Christianity was a ‘perverse European’ practice, which ‘corrupted the hearts of men’, as stated in a Royal edict.

After numerous US, British and French vessels unsuccessfully attempted to bridge relations and trade with Minh Mang he was drawn into a battle with Siam (Thailand) over the rule of Vietnam’s vassal state Cambodia (Gia Long had annexed Cambodia & installed his own ruler for Cambodia). This occurred at the same time as a Catholic civil uprising in Saigon, supported by the Siamese. This expensive uprising and the neighbouring Opium wars of China left Vietnam feeling under threat, leading Minh Mang to reversing his earlier decision of isolationism and seeking partners and support from the West.

He was known as a progressive ruler who got rid of many of the Fiefdoms run by the Mandarins of the royal court and set-up a more efficient government. His treatment of French priests and isolationism led to the French, particularly Napoleon, who had their eyes on Vietnam for some time, to invade Tourane (Da Nang) after his death to ‘teach the Vietnamese an overdue lesson’.

Minh Mang image
Minh Mang Tomb
Khai Dinh Tomb
Khai Dinh's burial place
Khai Dinh (born 1885 reign 1916-1925)

Khai Dinh came to power as a result of his two predecessors, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan being removed from office by the French because of their anti-French sentiment and exiled to Reunion Island.

Considering the first Nguyen Emperor sought and received help from the French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine, in 1802, it seems over 200 years later what he had sown had surely come to be reaped.

It’s therefore arguable that Khai Dinh had any choice in the matter other than to be a puppet monarch of the French colonial powers in place. He was hugely unpopular although his only son, Bao Dai was to succeed him as the last Emperor.

Bao Dai Public domain image
Bao Dai's home at the Citadel
Bao Dai (born 1913 reign 1926 – 1945)

A special mention goes to the inauspicious thirteenth and last emperor Bao Dai, again a French puppet at a turbulent time in European and Asian times between 1926 and 1955.

After WWII he finally abdicated to Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and became Chief of State for South Vietnam, finally being overthrown in a fraudulent political coup by President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955.

He spent the remainder of his days in exile in France and died in 1997. If nothing else he will probably be remembered for abdicating his position and therefore conferring his role and royal ‘Mandate from Heaven’ to Uncle Ho providing even greater legitimacy to Ho Chi Minh’s role.

Thien Mu Pagoda – tallest Pagoda in Vietnam

Also known as Temple of the Celestial Lady, after one of the Nguyen Lords built it after a local legend of a woman who sat on the hill where it was originally built. She foresaw events of the time and the temple is an unofficial symbol of Hue.
In 1963 it was an organising post for the Buddhist marches against President Diem’s discrimination against Buddhists.
The car which drove the monk Thich Quang Duc to his self-immolation is exhibited here.
In the 80’s there were also anti-communist protests after a death and some monks arrested for public disorder offences.

Temple of the Celestial Lady
11 June 1963 – A Silent Buddhist Protest 

In the early Summer of 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem’s Government passed a law which prevented the flying of the Buddhist flag, amongst other religious flags. The only flag allowed in Southern Vietnam was that of the Vatican state or Catholic church in commemoration of President Diem’s brother (Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc) consecrated as Archbishop of Hue.

On the birth date of the Gautama Buddha, May 8th, known as Phat Dan or Vesak, there was a peaceful Buddhist protest where the Buddhist flag was raised resulting in the shootings and death of nine unarmed Buddhist monks.

On 11th June 1963, a group of Buddhist monks quietly drove Thich Quang Duc to a peaceful protest in Saigon, where he burnt himself alive, in protest at the ongoing Buddhist persecution.
This act led to Worldwide coverage of the plight of Buddhism in Vietnam, where it was an estimated 90% of the population classify themselves as Buddhist.

The ‘Buddhist crisis’ led to the arrest and assassination of President Diem on 2 Nov 1963.

Thich Quang Ducs Car
A Buddhist sacrifice
Forbidden Palace Hue
1968 Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive 

Hue’s rich heritage was almost destroyed during the Tet offensive of January 1968, when Northern Viet Cong and the Northern Republican Army led some surprise attacks against the Southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the US army and allies.
After invading Hue, the ensuing battles lasting over a month resulted in the destruction of hundreds of years of history.

Little of it remains today in its original state, but as a result of UNESCO heritage status, it has been restored where known. Unfortunately little is known about the forbidden palace and therefore it remains untouched. It is a worthwhile sight when visiting Hue.

Modern History

As you can see this post shows travel isn’t always about sunset dinners and beaches, especially in Southeast Asia, an area with a very conflicted history. For me, this is what makes travel so interesting, although not particularly on a detailed level such as the Tet Offensive above, more about the passage of time and its effect on the norms and culture such as that with the Nguyen Emperors.

As an English language site and coming from Europe we often tend to think of ‘History’ as some old tome to be dusted off, but when visiting other countries and cultures we realise we also live within it, contribute towards and influence modern history.

Next Stop: Hanoi the modern capital of Vietnam. 

We stayed in Vietnam for 3 months and realised travelling too fast didn’t do our finances or stress levels much good. Moving slowly is much better, so we decided to rent an apartment in Hanoi for one month as a base to travel from.

 

 

Hanoi North of Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoi An – the ancient trading capital of Asia

Hoi An – the ancient trading capital of Asia

Chuc Thanh Pagoda

On the central coast a few miles inward of the Song Thu river delta, lies the ancient trading capital of Hoi An. Formerly known as Fai Foo. It’s relatively easy to get to as the overnight bus travel from Nha Trang takes approximately ten hours. Alternatively get the train north or south and stop at Danang, before grabbing a taxi to Hoi An.

Japanese and Chinese traders would visit this river delta to set up one of the largest trading regions along the ‘silk road’, where ceramics, pottery, silk and leather goods were exchanged. Fortunately, Hoi An was never spoilt by the ravages of war, which affected so much of the country and leaves it remaining a beautiful town.

Awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1999, it’s melting pot of trade and commerce is reflected in the architecture. From Chinese wooden shop fronts and communal halls, a covered Japanese bridge (the only Japanese bridge worldwide with a temple) and French colonial buildings, the town originated in the 15th century. It continued as a trading post until the 19th century, when exclusive trade rights were given to the French operating from nearby Da Nang. The loss of trade and the possible silting up of the river delta led to the loss of status for Hoi An, what the Japanese believed was the trading capital of Asia.

Japanese Bridge Hoi An
Hoi An Ao Dai

The old quarter, a largely pedestrianised area, entrance costs 150,000 Dong (approx US $6) which is a one-time fee regardless of how long you are visiting. The entrance ticket also includes 5 additional tickets for entry to the various Chinese congregation halls and museums, which makes it good value.

When Chinese traders arrived in Hoi An, they would often set-up meeting places based on their origin, such as Fujian. As a result there are a number of Chinese assembly halls, usually entered through an ornate gate, into a courtyard. There is a meeting area presumably to conduct trade negotiations with a large ornate table. At the rear, a shrine where they would worship in deference to a specific God and ancestral worshipping area for the founders. The best one is possibly the Phuc Kien (Fujian) assembly halls built in 1690. They are still in use today.

Chinese assembly hall Image Hoi An
Hoi An riverbank panorama
My Son Sanctuary Temple
My Son temple sanctuary

Hoi An’s early history is entwined with the history of the Cham peoples and nearby My Son temple sanctuary, a collection of 70 plus Hindu temples are a must for history buffs. Only a one hour drive to one of the biggest temple collections outside Angkor in Cambodia.

Marble Mountains

Above the village of Non Nuoc, where you will see shops with amazingly large statues, lie the Karst rocks of the marble mountains.

Climbing the stairs or taking the lift (preferable if you have kids), the central peak has been converted from a mine to a tourist destination of Buddhist shrines in the middle of the caves within the rock.

The shafts of light brightening up the shrines and the peaceful temples where practising monks might be performing a ceremony make for a great experience.

Marble mountain temple
Men playing Chess by Full moon in Hoi An
Anbang Beach

After wearing your feet out touring the old town of Hoi An, it’s worth spending a morning, depending on the time of year going to Anbang beach.

Make it early as the sand gets too hot to walk on or hire a beach bed and parasol, it’s one of the few places in Vietnam where we’ve found you can swim in reasonable safety (There’s no floating oil or beach mess).

The number of eating establishments means breakfast after a couple of hours before heading back to the hotel and venturing further afield again.

Hoi An has been one of the highlights of our visit to Vietnam, offering a lot for young kids with the proximity of the beach and the relative safety from mopeds and cars in the pedestrianised old quarter.

Other things to do include:

  • Pottery village
  • Silk village
  • Getting clothes made (silk shirts are a bargain)
  • Dining out – especially when the local beer (Bia Hoi) is 5000 Dong (approx US 22¢ cents) per glass.
  • Walking or Cyclo tour
  • Diving or snorkelling – usually a one day trip to Cham island

Hoi An – definitely recommended.

Next stop – Hue. The imperial city of the Nguyen emperors and capital of Annam.
Hue Flagpole

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