Of all the countries we visited on this 2-month journey, if I had to pick one to return to right now, it would be Vietnam. There was just something about it. Maybe it was the charming people, or the bright colors, or the art and food. It was probably a mixture of all these things.
We docked at two different ports in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Chan May (near Da Nang). While we spent a long of time exploring Saigon (we had three days there), we used both of those docking locations as base points to go and visit other areas as well.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Sailing in to Ho Chi Minh City was really interesting. The city is set inland a bit, but there is a narrow waterway that winds its way inward, and our ship spent at least three hours navigating all those delicate twists and turns. It was interesting to just hang out on deck because there are loads of small fishing boats and waterside huts and homes to see. Once docked, there was a shuttle that would take folks from the ship to the downtown area.
Saigon is a seriously bustling city, and the first thing you [can’t help but] notice is all the motorbikes. That’s what most people drive there and there are a LOT of people in that city. Oh yeah…. and there aren’t many traffic signals, so crossing the street can be terrifying. Basically, you just start walking across the street amongst the sea of motorbikes and as long as you keep a steady pace, they will just go around you. But dude… they come so close to you that they practically touch you. It’s kind of like playing Frogger at the most advanced level.
While in Saigon, we did most of our exploring on foot, and we walked a lot. It’s nice when there is time to just wander around, turning down any street that looks interesting. We found a lot of things this way, including the gigantic downtown market, which has everything from food, to luggage, to furniture, etc. All the stalls are so tightly packed in there that you sometimes have to turn your body sideways to get down the aisles. It was awesome to see, though. I eventually ended up buying a cheap piece of luggage to compensate for all my purchases on this trip!
I also found this store (or small chain of stores) called Artbook. And poor Ben had to endure us walking to each one of them so I could hunt down these great movie posters they carried. I’m a movie nut, and just HAD to have one for all my favorite movies. And when’s the next time we’re going to be in Saigon with time to kill, ya know? (These were part of the reason I needed that extra luggage bag I mentioned above.)
We also visited the Reunification Palace to get our dose of history while in the city. This was the site of the end of the Vietnam War, during the fall of Saigon in 1975. We didn’t find the building to be overly exciting or anything, but we wanted to at least go there. After all, it’s hard to visit Vietnam without reflecting on everything that went down there not too long ago.
The Mekong Delta
We took a tour that left from Ho Chi Minh City and took us to several locations in the Mekong Delta. While Saigon is big and bustling, these areas we visited were so much more rural and gave us a better idea of how some of the people live in Vietnam. Because the Delta is mostly made of waterways coming off of the Mekong River, you navigate by boat. In fact, the first place we visited by boat was a floating marketplace, which was fascinating. Dozens of little boats float around selling all kinds of foods. Each boat has a long stick raising up like a flagpole with whatever they’re selling tied to the top. We floated up to a boat that sold fruit and got coconuts and other crazy fruits I can’t pronounce but tasted great!
We also stopped at a little open-air “factory” where candy and other foods were made by hand. There were people popping rice, wrapping candy, making rice paper, etc. There were also some very unique, infused liquors. Now, you may be thinking of some of the liquors here that are infused with vanilla, lemon, coconut, etc. Nope… these concoctions were infused with snakes and scorpions. No joke. I thought about buying one, but I didn’t think a dead scorpion floating in liquid would fare well going through customs. Ben, the brave soul that he is, actually tasted the stuff. I took a much more conservative approach, however, and decided to wear a 10-foot-long python around my neck. (New scarf, anyone?)
Our little boat also took us to a nice little restaurant on the Delta where local food was prepared for us table-side. Luckily, none of the fare included snakes, but there was some really tasty fried fish, soup, spring rolls, etc.
One of the great things about taking a cruise-organized tour is that they arrange these special experiences for you. The places we visited on the Mekong Delta were so small and local that they would have been impossible to find on our own. We would’t have even known what to look for. The other nice thing about this particular tour was how small and intimate it was. There were literally six of us, including our guide. This made for a much more relaxed experience that let us interact with the Vietnamese people a lot better.
Our second docking location in Vietnam was Chan May, and we took another tour that left from there. Our tour took us to the adorable town of Hoi An. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s a beautifully-preserved trading port. Ben and I could have literally spent a week there. We spent our whole visited photographing and looking in the shops, but we wished we had more time to dine in some of the restaurants, take a boat ride, etc. We were dropped off at the historic Japanese Bridge (which is beautifully ornate) and allowed to explore on our own.
It is very easy to wander the streets of Hoi An. There are little to no cars, as most people ride bikes, and the locals are very friendly and hospitable. There is a little river that runs through the middle of town and lots of beautiful streets lined with shops and restaurants. I kind of went nuts with the shops. There was so much beautiful art, casual clothing and other cute wares. Hoi An is also a really colorful place. There are lots of vibrant yellow walls, painted shutters and colored lanterns all over. It was hard to take my camera off of my face here, and I think I shot more photos here than in any other town on our trip. In the gallery below, the Hoi An images are at the end.
This post has gotten a bit long, so I’ll wrap it up by expressing how happy I am that my mental image of Vietnam is now that of a beautiful place and a beautiful people, and not a war.
Here are some of my images: