Saigon and the horrors of war

Ho Chi Minh City is commonly referred to by locals and visitors as Saigon. These names encapsulate the rich past of Vietnam’s largest city, the “capital” of the South. It’s definitely not a charming town, but it is an excellent place to learn about history and war. We had arrived on a night train from relaxing Nha Trang beach, and after a quick fruity breakfast at the famous Ben Thanh Market, we were eager to start exploring.

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A break in Nha Trang beach

Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break. After two months backpacking through Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, we needed some days of relax to recharge batteries. Luckily, the beach town of Nha Trang was on our way, and we had enough SPG points to get a free room at the Sheraton there. For those who don’t know, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) is probably the best hotel loyalty program in the world. I travel for work a lot, and try to stay at their Westins, Sheratons, Ws and St. Regis as much as possible to horde points, which accumulate fast once you have platinum status. And it’s to use them in moments like these, to get a free suite at a nice hotel by the ocean, and stuff yourself at the included buffet 🙂

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The temples of My Son, a great day trip form Hoi An

Pretty much unknown to us, the Champa Kingdom was one of the greatest Asian civilizations, ruling central and southern Vietnam from the 2nd to the 17th century. Hoi An was their commercial capital and My Son the spiritual one. Dozens of Hindu temples were built at this location between the 4th and the 14th century, only to be reclaimed by the jungle when the empire fell under the Nguyen dynasty.

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Walking around Hoi An, Vietnam’s jewel

Hoi An is, without a question, the most charming city of Vietnam. Nicely preserved and protected by its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it enamors you with its yellow French colonial buildings, Chinese-style shop-houses, lively riverfront and colorful nights. It is, in contrast with the rest of the cities we visited in this trip, a city for pedestrians, with the Old Town closed to cars and even motorbikes at certain times. Continue reading “Walking around Hoi An, Vietnam’s jewel”

How to visit Danang’s Marble Mountain on your own

Danang (or Da Nang) makes for a nice stop between the imperial capital Hue and the tourist favorite Hoi An. Most travelers visit its most famous site, the Marble Mountains, as a day trip from either one of those. But, as usual, we wanted to avoid organized tours, and found a simple way to do it on our own. First, we had to take a 3 hour public bus from Hue, which dropped us off in the center of Danang late afternoon. Continue reading “How to visit Danang’s Marble Mountain on your own”

Tombs and more in Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam

Hue was a positive surprise in our trip. I have to admit, I wasn’t familiar with the pre-war history of Vietnam and hadn’t heard of this city. But as I read more and more about the Nguyen dynasty, I started to get excited about visiting the 19th century imperial capital. We arrived mid-morning in a sleeper train from Ninh Binh/Tam Coc, and from the station took a metered taxi to a hotel we had booked the night before. Continue reading “Tombs and more in Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam”

The beautiful landscapes of Tam Coc and Trang An

After a few days exploring Hanoi and Halong Bay, it was time to continue our north-to-south journey through Vietnam. We were planning on visiting the area known as “Halong Bay inland”, but instead of joining a day tour from Hanoi, we wanted to do it independently. So we headed to the Giap Bat bus station and got on the first public bus to Ninh Binh. Continue reading “The beautiful landscapes of Tam Coc and Trang An”

A 3-day cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam’s natural wonder

While in Hanoi, we did some research on Halong Bay cruises, and ended up choosing the 3-day/2-night Monkey Island tour. There are a million operators online and in every street of the Old Quarter, and some are dirt cheap… but we read a lot of negative reviews for the budget options (food quality and quantity, group size, crappy boats, number of stops, etc.), and decided we could splurge a bit for one of the highlights of our trip. Continue reading “A 3-day cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam’s natural wonder”

What to see in Hanoi, the hectic capital of Vietnam

Hanoi is not the most welcoming city in the world, one really has to try to get to like it. On our first evening, we ventured to explore the Old Quarter, where our hotel was located. The narrow streets were taken over by people, motorbikes and shops, organized by trades (e.g. we were in the toys street). Between the heat and humidity and the masses of tourists, walking around felt exhausting, so we made our way to Hoan Kiem Lake (where the legend claims a giant turtle stole the king’s sword) and checked out Ngoc Son Temple. As we walked back toward the Old Quarter, taking a detour west to see less touristy areas, a brutal storm broke out. Luckily, before being completely soaked, we found the mall Hang Da, with lots of handicraft shops to keep us entertained until the skies cleared. And as we walked back through the night market, and to the nightlife/pedestrian-friendly area around Ta Hien, we were compensated by one of the most gorgeous sunsets ever. And then by some yummy local specialties – spring rolls, pho and bun cha are must tries.

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