This year we had the most unique Christmas holiday of our lives. We traveled through SouthEast Asia for five whole weeks! It was a long trip, filled with countless new experiences. Today we’ll share some stories from our 12 days in Vietnam…
The quick version:
Our first new experience was a business class flight from Christchurch to Singapore and then Singapore to Hanoi. We didn’t plan on flying business class, but there was a booking error with our original itinerary and we got an amazing upgrade onto Singapore Air!
We landed in Hanoi in the morning and spent the day exploring the Old Quarter of the city. If I could describe Hanoi with one word it would be “chaos.” A constant barrage of mopeds, cars, horns, hawkers, power lines, people, and food consumed all our senses. We came as close to being overwhelmed as humanly possible without completely losing it, and had a great time seeing pagodas and the temple of literature.
On our second night in Hanoi, we went on a walking foodie tour. We sampled 8 or 9 local dishes at the same number of restaurants. All the food was very good and we left feeling extremely full.
The dining style in Hanoi is worth mentioning. Many vendors are too small and cannot sit many people, so they place tiny tables and stools on the sidewalk and the road. Grown adults do their best to sit in the chairs as mopeds and cars zip around them as they eat.
We also went to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. Before the war, the French used the building to imprison local Vietnamese. The museum explained how conditions were pretty terrible during the French occupation, but then had a pleasant room about how nicely they treated the Americans. We, of course, knew that the Americans were actually tortured. So despite the propaganda, being in the prison was still a pretty chilling experience.
A few hours from Hanoi is a wonderful place called Halong Bay. When translated, it means “where the dragon descends into the sea.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of limestone cliffs rise up out of the water in a random assortment of awe inspiring shapes. We spent about 24 hours on a boat traveling through the Bay. The food was amazing and the boat was actually in pretty good shape (there are no guarantees of this in Vietnam).
We went on a tour of Sung Sot Cave, or “Amazing Cave”, and it was, in fact, amazing. The cavern was massive, probably the biggest room I’ve ever been in under ground. The only downside is that Amazing Cave was the most crowded place we went on our entire 5 week trip.
We also hiked up to the summit of Ti Top Island and enjoyed panoramic views of the entire bay. It never rained, but in winter there is this interesting haze over everything. Although it meant we couldn’t see as far, it did add a nice layer of mystery to the bay where dragons descend into the sea.
We hopped on a short plane ride and flew to the city of Hue (Huh-way), right in the middle of Vietnam. Hue was the old capital/imperial city and we spent the day looking at the tombs of past ancient kings. The imperial palace was a bit of a disappointment as it was destroyed by bombs in the Vietnam War. Although they are rebuilding it, progress is very slow and isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2035 (supposing there are no delays).
The tombs, however, were surprisingly interesting. Each one was very unique and featured impressive sculptures, buildings, and nature. The first king could challenge Solomon with his 500 wives and 700 concubines. Few cultural buildings survived the war in Vietnam, but the three tombs we saw escaped bombing and are probably the most impressive example of history still standing.
One other thing worth mentioning is the weather in Hue. Our day of touring was one of the only days we had any rain on our entire trip! Pretty incredible over 5 weeks, and the rain in Hue was really only a drizzle.
We weren’t planning on it, but our tour included a kung fu demonstration. The tour guide described every single act as “very special, very powerful.” Naturally, this became our catch phrase for the rest of the trip.
Our next destination after Hue was Hoi An. We chose to ride there on motorcycles, and it was amazing! We have absolutely no business driving motorcycles at home, much less on the wild roads of Vietnam, so we opted to ride with a guy named Thang from Hue Brothers Motorcycle tours.
We road along backcountry roads and rice fields, the coast, the largest lagoon in Se Asia, by Bach Ma National Park, and over the mountains through Hai Van Pass. It was a scenic day filled with great sites and the occasional terrifying “thread the needle” truck pass on the road. We stopped for tea and snacks overlooking the ocean and enjoyed so many stunning views.
Our motorcycle tour ended in the small town of Hoi An. This was Morgan’s favorite place in all of Vietnam, and you can see why in the pictures below. A river runs straight through town and each night lanterns shine all around the water. Different shades of purple and orange, red and yellow light up the restaurants and hawkers sell candles that float down the river.
During the day we visited My Son Sanctuary, an ancient collection of Hindu temples. They were made of brick and covered with bits of moss and grass. Despite some carpet bombing in the war, several structures still stand and are worth seeing.
We also went on a nature tour that allowed us to ride a water buffalo. Since riding camels in Australia, Morgan has developed a fetish for riding strange and exotic animals. I can’t say that I was ever comfortable on this 1 ton beast (named Xe), but that may be because his tail kept slapping me in the back.
The nature tour also included a ride in these crazy round bamboo boats.Vietnamese people can fit about 8-10 people in ONE boat! I have my canoeing merit badge and thought it would be easy, but paddling them is a serious challenge. If you don’t paddle properly, you will quickly find yourself spinning in endless circles.
We spent another day on bicycles touring the old city, inspecting some temples, wandering through the market, and experiencing a Vietnamese massage. Hoi An is famous for tailor made clothing shops, so Morgan stopped by and had a couple dresses made.
Compared to the insane hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An was a welcome break and we were sad to leave when we had to catch our flight South.
Ho Chi Minh
It’s not the capital, but Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon) is the largest city in Vietnam. Like Hanoi, there were countless mopeds and cars beeping from every direction. Crossing the street is an interesting test in nerve. There probably won’t be a break in traffic, so you simply need to step out into the street and walk at a constant speed. As you go, try not to look too terrified and the mopeds and cars will weave around you.
The highlight of Ho Chi Minh for me was the Cu Chi tunnels. This 250km (155-mile) network of tunnels housed thousands of Viet Cong on the front door step of the American base. The tunnels were less than 3 feet tall and were dug at three different depth levels. Because they are so far south, the area is always hot (over 90 degrees in the “winter”) and the tunnels were even hotter. We were able to crawl through the tunnels (Morgan made it 100 meters!) and learned about some of the guerrilla warfare tactics they used (which were both brilliant and chilling at the same time).
We also visited the War remnants museum and the reunification palace. Both were interesting, but again, carried tremendous bias against the “Americans who came in like crazy devils” during the war.
Despite the propaganda in museums, we found the people of Vietnam extremely kind. Most were delighted that we were American and had come to visit.
Our last day in Ho Chi Minh was Christmas Eve. We spent the day visiting the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is one of the largest rivers in the world. It starts in Tibet and flows through Asia, ending in Vietnam and the South China Sea. On our trip, we sampled local fruit, learned how to make coconut candy (and eat it too!), wore conical hats, and road in a traditional sampon rowboat. The river area was very pretty and our lunch was awesome.
Once night time rolled around, we decided to walk over to Notre Dame cathedral. Turns out, there is a replica of the French building in town. On our way, there was a Christmas miracle: Morgan found an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels! It is one of her favorite places to eat in the world, and we do not have one in New Zealand.
But the miracles were not finished, because right next to the Notre Dame replica I discovered a Popeye’s! It shined like a beacon in the night and a choir of angels began to sing as I walked into my favorite fast food restaurant (which, of course, does not exist in New Zealand either). I tried to convince Morgan that we should make it a Christmas Eve tradition, but I’m not sure she’s convinced yet.
On Christmas day we woke up and Skyped with our families. We definitely missed them and all our friends during this time, but are still glad we went on this journey. Around noon we hopped on a bus and started making our way to our next country: Cambodia.