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

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