World traveler Clown Tom Bolton

Adventure stories & photos

Southern & Cental Vietnam

 

Hue, Vietnam

This is a continuation of my trip to Vietnam in early 2014. The first part is covered on the Northern Vietnam page. From Hanoi I had a flight to Hue on what was officially the first day of the new lunar year. I got the Vietnam Air airport shuttle which only cost 3 dollars instead of a 18 dollar taxi. It worked out fine although I had to walk 15 minutes with my backpack at 5.30 in the morning and missed the breakfast that was included in my hotel rate. It was somewhere from 60 to 90 minutes flight time but of course getting to the airport in time and getting the baggage took time as well.

Upon arrival in Hue, I went out the door and found that the bus service that should be running was not and suddenly all of the other tourists I might have been able to share a taxi with were full up and disappeared. There might have been some stragglers back inside but I just went ahead and paid the 7 dollars or so to get a taxi myself. I had booked a night in a hotel over the internet when I had booked my flight that turned out to be a very good place.

Most businesses were closed but I found a good, cheap restaurant close to the hotel and after breakfast walked along the river. There were a handful of these elaborate tour boats designed like dragons which was an empirical symbol and Hue had been an imperial city. This was a beautiful pagoda in a park on the other side of the river from the boats.

Hue landmark, the Citadel

A huge area on this side of the river is referred to as the citadel and within the Citadel is the main empirical enclosure. So a royal inner city within a royal city. Surrounding both was a series of moats and fortifications. Pictures also include the bridge over the moat and the main entrance to empirical enclosure.

Citadel heavily bombed

The grounds are extensive and fortunately there are still some fine old buildings that survived the western bombing that destroyed the vast majority of the complex.

Royal Theater

This was the royal theater. The interior of the theater was stunningly ornate.

Museum of imperial artifacts

Some of the bigger buildings contained exhibitions of imperial artifacts. The emperor’s robes were definitely not invisible and often had sleeves that looked like they would hang down to the floor. I have to doubt the authenticity of the costumes found in the room next to a display of thrones but they had a whole wardrobe where people could get dressed up and have their picture taken posing as a king.

Citadel pagodas & temples

There was some intricate stone work that formed ponds and what must have been the foundation of temples or at least pagodas. Not sure if the remaining buildings like this pagoda missed getting bombed or were painstakingly rebuilt from the ruins. The carvings were often of dragon motifs. The last photo is the back entrance and moat to the inner enclosure.

Hue family invitation for Tet

I had an old buddy from University who ended up in Saigon about 15 years before he was still there in 2014. He gave me the cell phone number of a couple of friends of his that turned out to be a great help. The first one was an Armenian raised in Ethiopia who had migrated to California and eventually to Vietnam where he married a woman from Hue. They and their young son had gone on to Malaysia a few years previous for work but they all missed Vietnam and were back to visit the family for the main Tet holidays.

I got a hold of him on my cell phone near the end of my visit to the citadel. Rather than trying to find a bike to rent to see the temples some ways out of the center, I went to meet them. He and his wife and son (pictured to the right) had a taxi and we stopped to get a supply of beer on the way to the wife’s parents’ home. It could have been a bit awkward but they were very welcoming and gave me a chance to see how locals celebrate such an occasion.

Men drink, women serve

The women were somewhere in the back while the men were in the living room being served Vietnamese tapas and drinking. Like in Bavaria, one yelled; “one, two, three DRINK” and touched drinking vessels which in this case were cans of beer. There was plenty of hard liquor on the table but I made it clear that beer was as strong of a spirit as I like. I had to nurse the beers along since I am not a big drinker. The empties were tossed under the table which created quite a mound of aluminum by the time we were done. To earn my keep I put on a juggling show with fruits that was well received but would have been much more impressive if I had not left my clubs in the hotel.

Eventually, we went to the house of another relative; more drinking and eating and juggling and everyone had a good time. I got dropped off early in the evening and would have checked out some of the restaurants and bars but was feeling at my limit. Through the hotel I booked a ticked the next day to take me to Hoi An. I am sure I could have kept my room another night and had not seen the local temples but wasn’t so convinced of their worth that I would change plans to stay longer although I now regret the decision a little.

What surprised me was that many of the people I met traveling were not impressed with Hue at all. In the end I have to say that there are not so many impressive historical sites left in Vietnam and while I agree with many sentiments that Hoi An is quainter, the citadel in Hue was pretty amazing and more so when one thinks that it is just a fraction of its former self.

Hoi An, Vietnam

The bus ride to Hoi An was about 5 hours and for me enjoyable. After being in the north, here was suddenly the vision of Vietnam most of us have in our head. Jagged green mountains and terraces of sprouting rice. We went through Da Nang but like most tourists I was more focused on getting on to Hoi An, 40 more Km down the coast. I later meet a couple who had liked Da Nang so much that they spent almost a week there. Seems that although it is not so quaint like Hoi An but it has grown into a major city with a lot of cultural things happening.

I eventually found a reasonable room but it was rather expensive compared to the ones I had had until then. Problem was that Hoi An has become one of the most popular destinations for Tet which drives up the prices. I eventually rented a bike for a couple of days but my hotel was close enough that I could easily walk to the center. Much of the preserved old quarter runs along the river and this bridge is pretty much the central icon of it all. The riverfront on the other side was also one restaurant after another and had the best views to watch life go by.

Old Hoi An houses, wooden boats

It was a beautiful setting with the old houses and boats and they seemed to remove the garbage so there were no bad smells or any mosquitos this time of year. There were a few boats that were floating restaurants but most were simple fishing vessels.

Hoi An, Japanese Bridge

There was a small creek running into the river a few hundred meters from the main bridge with another bridge over it called the Japanese Bridge. It was a covered bridge and very ornate with some religious shrines inside. Shown is also entrance to the Japanese bridge.

Hoi An architecture, paper lanterns

The street parallel to the waterfront had a lot of shops and everywhere one saw paper lanterns which were popular souvenirs for the many Vietnamese tourists and I even saw places offering courses in lantern making. The next photos show typical examples of the 2 predominate styles of architecture. Hoi An was once a center of trade with many Japanese and Chinese merchants who used many of these buildings are warehouses as well as living quarters. The Japanese eventually stopped coming as their country closed to the outside world but the Chinese continued to play a major role in the local economy. There are many temples and big houses that were the meeting places of different Chinese society groups.

Traditional pharmacy

One of the most interesting buildings was this old pharmacy. Inside were many old containers for traditional medicines and scrolls that I assume has something to do with medicine.

Hoi An Temples, Chinese style houses

Normally one has to pay for a ticket to see the temples and the old houses open to the public but there was free entrance for everyone for the main days of Tet. Here are just a few of various Hoi An temples which came in all sizes.

Tet festivities in Hoi An

Going upwards along the river, there were displays and booths, stages and tents set up for the Tet festivities, which really got going in the evening. Party time meant lots of extra food vendors on the streets.

Tet festival decorations

Many of the festival displays had a nationalistic theme suggesting protection of the father land. In the front of this one is also a horse figure that was the main symbol represented since it was the start of the lunar year of the horse. I heard no mention of the Chinese influence in connection with the Tet holidays but they share the same 12 animals as symbols of the zodiac with the exception that the rabbit in China is substituted by the cat in Vietnam. It has been theorized that cats were simply not so wide spread in China as in Vietnam when these systems were developed.

Game booths

There were plenty of games of chance; at least some I saw were not intended for small kids I presume since the prize was a can of beer rather than a stuffed animal. But like in much of Asia, the superstition of luck is an important one even to the point where an odd number of people in a photo is unlucky. I had a number of young people in Hoi An that wanted to take a picture with me and now I have to wonder if it actually had more to do with evening out the number in their photo rather than being amused at the foreigner.

Public announcements outside of Hoi An

I took a long bike ride up river going through a village that was supposed to be famous for its ceramics but I never saw any. I did see the next 2 signs along the way that follow the tradition of and style of propaganda posters during the war. The one seemed to be a public service announcement to discourage the use of plastic bags. The over usage of plastic seems to have gone hand in hand with the idea of modern technology and sanitary precautions. Now people around the world have to learn that not everything modern is an improvement.

Rice fields – An Bang Beach

I spent parts of 2 days of my 4 days in Hoi An at An Bang Beach, which was a flat 4 kilometer bike ride. Along the way I had my first opportunity to take the clichéd tourist photo of Vietnam; people working in the rice paddies. I had seen some such scenes by Sapa in the north – only there wasn’t any rice growing yet. And yes, Vietnam does grow an abundance of rice and good rice at that.

An Bang Beach

The beach was nice; it ran on for tens of kilometers and at least in front of the restaurants was mostly garbage free. Hardly anyone went in the water while I was there but I am not sure why. It might have been a little cool but not too cold to swim but I simply felt like chilling out on land never got around to going in myself. I was thinking that I would have plenty of opportunities to swim further south in Nha Trang and Mui Ne but at the time I didn’t appreciate how pleasant and relaxing this beach really was.

There were a few souvenir sellers and women offering massage but not to the point of being annoying. I think one got charged a dollar or two to use the lounge chairs under the grass umbrellas but one could use them for free if you bought a meal.  I was surprised that the food I had here was very good and not more expensive than most places in town. When one arrives by bike, they virtually force you to dismount and park and then charge you. No one collected when I left my bike but then they demanded money when I left and couldn’t produce a stub. They asked for something like 3 dollars but I gave them 1 with a smile and they accepted it. The next day I parked a hundred meters or so before I got to the end of the road to avoid the hassle.

Typical round boats

There were many of these round boats that one sees all over Vietnam. Many seemed to be fiberglass but all of the ones here were woven natural materials like a big flat basket. Often used just to cross a river, they actually used these to fish in the open sea. They are propelled with just one oar that is pushed side to side behind like the tail of a fish rather than lifted out of the water like a canoe or row boat.

Cam Kim Island

There was a delta by Hoi An and a constant flow of small ferries docked by the market near the center. They took passengers and many motorbikes to Cam Kim Island which was about a 15 minute ride. I made the smart decision to take a bicycle with me and spent about 3 or 4 hours riding all over. There were small communities and single houses a midst the fields and farms on the totally cultivate island. It is irregularly shaped and the sometimes unpaved roads were rarely straight and often dead ended.

I was semi-lost half of the time but knew it was big enough to get too far off the beaten track. What was surprising was the reaction of the people when I rode by. Hoi An is just a short boat ride away and one of the most visited places in the country and here the people acted like they had hardly ever seen a foreigner. There seemed to be another temple every 500 meters, some of them fairly big but many were tiny but elaborately cared for.

Rural agriculture

Mostly it was farms; plenty of veggies and even corn but a good amount of rice paddies as well.

Cam Kim Island Community Center

I’m not sure what this place was, a community center or what? It was not a temple but they had lots of traditional decoration and a stage set up for the Tet festivities and some musicians playing traditional instruments.

Mobile gasoline pumps

This was something I saw in even larger urban settings, a gas pump for the motorbikes which is wheeled out in front of a shop. I read somewhere that they are not recommended because of the risk of water or other impurities but in many places there is no big gas station and probably not the economic incentive to build one.

Hoi An to Nha Trang

I booked a bus through my hotel in Hoi An to Nha Trang leaving in the early evening arriving about 5 am in the morning. It was a sleeper seat where one could stretch out horizontally but the places were on two levels and then in addition they put some people on the floor. There was a bathroom on board but one had no chance to step over the people in the small passages to get there. Luckily they made a late night stop to eat that I used to hit the facilities. I avoided drinking anything on this and most of my other bus trips, possibly getting a bit dehydrated but avoiding having to deal with onboard toilets.

I had the number of another friend of my friend in Saigon and I had had a couple of short calls with Denny to announce my arrival but it was so early when I got in that I tried to look for a room on my own. What I found was an abundance of hotels but not a single vacancy; even at double or more the normal price, rooms were full.

American jeeps

After searching for more than an hour, I got breakfast at this restaurant that was just opening and then called Denny. He kind of saved my ass by arranging a room for me at his hotel where he had stayed half a year for most of the past 21 years. The price was not as cheap as during normal times but still affordable and just one and a half blocks from the beach. One sees a lot of jeeps, often used to take tourists around on adventure outings. Not unique but most of them were not vintage American ones from during the war like this one, something that appeared to have kind of a cult status.

Nha Trang Beach

The attraction of Nha Trang is that it is a good sized city with a large and long beach right there in the middle of it all. There are plenty of places where you can get a lounge chair and buy drinks or other places to just hang out. The only drawback was that it faces east and the sun would disappear from the beach by late afternoon. Much of the beach is fronted by parkway and by this landmark tower there is a big open plaza where I usually saw dozens of people flying kites in the late afternoon.

Nha Trang, Vietnam’s party town

Nha Trang is known as a party town; the center full of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies including many owned by westerners. Denny showed me around a bit including taking me on his motorcycle but after 2 days he had to take a trip to Saigon and unfortunately didn’t return by the time I left. In other places this scene might have been too irreverent; a temple in the midst of the tourist center but not too holy to have a fruit stand set up in front.

Heavy Russian presence

This was a funny contrast, the Texas b-b-q place next door to the Soviet Union restaurant. I had not seen many Russians until this point but Nha Trang and most beach towns further south are overrun by Russians. They don’t seem to care about culture, just warm weather and being catered to. They don’t need a visa and many shops and restaurants have signs and menus if not personnel that speak Russian, sometimes to the exclusion of English.

Strange things on the menus like crocodile and snake head soup are not so much a local delicacy as much as something the Russians demand. I’ve meet some Russians here and there on my travels but there were masses of them here and most didn’t seem to speak much if any English and they overwhelmingly fit the stereotype of being fat, lousy dressers and drunk. Funny thing was that so many of them had trophy wives. I didn’t go to any 5 star resorts so these were obviously not the nouveau riche but I had to wonder how many of them might be small time gangsters; I’m truly not prejudice but every other cliché fit to them.

Same same but different

Same same but different cafe. I didn’t hear this expression as often here as I had heard it in other parts of Asia but the concept is still popular. One looks for something and the seller will try to convince you to buy what he has to sell no matter how different it is. I liked this other version; same thing but cheaper – hard to argue with that concept as long as the quality if adequate.

Long Son Pagoda – Nha Trang

One of the major sites to visit in Nha Trang was the Long Son Pagoda complex a few kilometers west of the center. I rented a bike which was not as easy as I had found elsewhere. I had arranged for one at a travel agency but the one they tried to give me was much too small and not adjustable and lock was broken so I had to go looking for another one and most places just rented motorbikes. I stopped to look at a large church on the way but Long Son was my real destination. The complex is built on a hill with a large temple down below and a huge sitting Buddha at the crown. Images include the entrance, Buddhist nuns about to ascend the first level of stairs, murals on the temple and burning incense in front of the temple.

Pagoda, sleeping Buddha

Around half way to the top is level is a pagoda. Above the pagoda is a large sleeping Buddha, a presentation I’d seen more often seen in Sri Lanka.

Sitting Buddha, mausoleums

At the top is the sitting Buddha surrounded by a level of mausoleums for interned ashes. Locals liked to pose in front of the Buddha, which has a bunch of communist heroes displayed at the base. Like in a graveyard, people often leave offerings of flowers, incense and some of the deceased’s favorite snacks.

Po Nagar Cham Towers

The other big cultural attraction in Nha Trang is the Po Nagar Cham towers on a hill a few KM north-east and over the river from Long Son. Not a long ride by bike although there is a lot of traffic. The architecture was virtually the same as what I would later see by Mui Ne only more massive; backed brick rather than stone the main source of building material.

View from tower complex

There was a nice view south back towards the center from the main level of the Po Nagar complex. I had crossed the lower bridge on my bike and spotted a crowd down by the river bank. I had a premonition of something bad and when I went to investigate, found a corpse under a small roof surrounded by people. They had a jacket over his head and rather than trying to revive him they were putting water on his hands and stroking them, which might have helped to keep the rigor mortis from stiffening his limbs. I hesitated thinking maybe nobody had an idea about how to administer CPR and if I shouldn’t try. But it was obvious that he must have been in this condition for at least 15 minutes by the time I got there and without speaking the language I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.

Cham tower architecture

Some views of the main towers. The towers all had a small dark room with a high conical ceiling where the people still gave offerings and worshiped. Woman with traditional dress the Ao Dai, which is typically half way down the calf with long slits on the sides with long pants or a long skirt worn underneath. They were mostly worn for fancy occasions and looked very stylish.

Nha Trang Tet parade

After visiting the towers and just riding around the area a bit, I headed toward the up bridge shown before to circle back to town. On the way I came upon a large group setting up to make a parade as part of the Tet festivities. There were different groups, one with red banners, others with flowers, a bunch of what looked to be Buddhist nuns.

Tet parade marching band

Like in any good parade they had a marching band wearing what looked like military uniforms. It was rather hot in the sun and both the participants and many spectators got restless as the time went by. After more than half an hour, they had still not started to move and I lost interest and hopped on my bike and continued back to the center.

Save a life before leaving Nha Trang

I then took a break and had a blueberry milk-shake at a sidewalk cafe. I wrote in my journal and had to contemplate all I had seen that day including the dead body. The was a small boy of about 18 month that was trying to climb onto a motorcycle and I got nervous keeping an eye on him thinking he could pull the vehicle over onto himself. Nobody else paid him any attention and I wasn’t even sure where he belonged to.

Then suddenly he darted between 2 parked cars and out into the busy street. I jumped out after him and grabbed him back without even having a chance to see if I would have been run over as well. I put the kid back on the sidewalk and then saw that he belonged to a family some meters away who never noticed a thing. I hoped it balanced out my possible bad Karma for not attempting CPR earlier but actually felt more pissed at the family’s neglect to keep an eye on the kid than I felt any pride in doing a good deed.

Dalat, city in the hills

I had spent 4 days in Nha Trang and felt a bit restless so I booked a bus to the highland city of Dalat, just around 120 KM but it took a good 5 hours winding up the mountains. The views were almost spectacular much of the early part of the journey but a lot of the terrain close to Dalat was industrial and lacked much charm. Denny in Nha Trang had recommended a hotel in Dalat that was a little tricky to find as the street address didn’t correspond to the card I had but the owner was friendly and the price was extremely cheap. There was a large manmade lake by the center that I choose as my first place to visit after having showered and eating a good lunch.

Dalat Lake polluted

Dalat lake was not very exciting. It didn’t stink but was full of algae and there were numerous dead fish and garbage floating in it. There were multiple places that rented out paddle boats but only a few people actually paddling. The Tet holidays were officially finished but I didn’t have the feeling that Dalat was the place to be for Tet anyway. It was popularized by people wanting to get away from the heat during the hotter seasons and there were few tourists around.

Dalat Garden Exhibition

The lake was bigger than I had though and it was a long walk to the one end where there was a big garden and flower exhibition. One could look inside without entering and it did not look worth paying money for. The bushes in front of the horticultural exhibition were sculpted to look like dragons.

Exploring Dalat center

I had thought to circle around the lake but realized it would take most of the day so I went back the way I came and was on the outlook to rent a bike. I looked at my map and consulted my Lonely Planet and went off towards the only place I saw listed but they didn’t have any bikes. I started toward the center of the city again and found a bunch of places that had these terrible tandems that the local kids found funny to putter around on but seemed a poor way of getting around. There was supposed to be a train museum and a house with very strange architecture that I had intended to visit but by now it was late afternoon and I ran out of steam.

I explored the center and central market and went back to my hotel to chill out and have some dinner. Afterwards I returned to the center and continued on to another area of town than where I was staying that had a bunch of hotels and popular restaurants where the most of the foreign travelers hung out. I had a drink outside at a place that specialized in dishes with chocolate. There was a group of German and Swiss and a couple of other westerners there that I more or less eavesdropped on, finding it funny that they would talk German sometimes assuming the rest of us didn’t understand.

I had thought I would stay at least another day but decided to leave the next morning to Mui Ne. Most of the other sites in Dalat didn’t sound so exciting or there were waterfalls in the area but sounded like they were logistically difficult to get to and like a lot of sites in Vietnam – worth seeing if you are in a place and needed something to do but not so interesting that one would necessarily go out of their way to see them.

 

Mui Ne, Vietnam

I had heard a lot about Mui Ne; how it had become one of the most popular Vietnamese beach destinations in recent years and the place many of the package tours would accommodate guests to enjoy a great beach. I was disappointed. There is no real center, it is just over priced hotels and shops and resorts strung out along about 15 Km of coast. The beach is not very wide at all and full of garbage and there were only a few places where one could even buy a drink or food.

Not many people were even on the beach as the center of activities was mostly on the road. And not that I choose to stay at hostels if I can avoid them but there didn’t even seem to be any as a cheap option. Things were not outrageously expensive, the place was not terrible but it lacked any charm and was just boring. I rented a bike from my hotel, the best one out of a dozen but it was much too small and with only 1 speed was not enough to take some of the longer slopes.

A few KM to the north of where I stayed was a fishing village where I took the next 2 photos. Beyond the fishing village were some large sand dunes I had intended to visit but I gave up before getting to them. I had already ridden about 30 Km to the Cham ruins to the south and back and my knees were hurting from using a crappy bike.

Temple south of Mui Ne

This was a nice temple on the main Mui Ne road to the south that I found on an afternoon bicycle trip. Not sure of its name.

Po Shanu Cham Towers

Farther south of Mui Ne are the 3 Po Shanu Cham Towers on a hill overlooking the city of Phan Thiet a few kilometers farther down the coast. The architecture is similar to the Cham towers in Nha Trang.

Po Shanu priest

Other than this priest or monk or however he is called, I didn’t see more than a handful of other visitors at Po Shanu. I would see much more people at the Cham towers in Nha Trang including locals performing rituals in them although these towers were originally Hindu rather than Buddhist.

Po Shanu Communist monument

On the top of the Po Shanu hill are ruins from a fortified estate built by the French, captured and destroyed by the Viet Cong. Just below on the way up from the Cham towers was a monument to the communist revolution. Seemed the Communists preserved religious sites since they are historically important but they always throw in a plaque or monument to the revolution. Seems a bit irreligious but then not nearly as much as the Americans and French who militarized and eventually bombed many such places.

Bus Mui Ne to Saigon

I spent 3 nights in Mui Ne and then got an early bus to Saigon. Although it was not an overnight trip it did take until late afternoon and the bus was one of the typical sleepers. Despite it still being in the Tet holiday time I did manage to find buses to where I wanted to go. They are sometimes more expensive and the scheduling irregular but one can travel then.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Saigon might not be its official name but seemed more commonly used. This is a shot of Bui Vien Street the center of the travelers’ world in Ho Chi Minh City. For about 800 meters, it and its many side streets host over 100 hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and souvenir shops. When I first arrived I went to a place recommended to me but they claimed only to have an expensive room with air conditioning which although warm, wasn’t really necessary. For 10 USD they gave me a dorm room but I was the only person in it. I only stayed one night and the next night was getting a bus to connect to the boat for Phu Quoc Island. So most of the time I spent in Saigon was after I returned from Phu Quoc on my way back to Germany.

Saigon – motorbike madness

Like in Hanoi, Saigon is a mad house (if not more so) of motorbikes that gridlocks during the rush hours. Saigon seemed to have much less bicycles than Hanoi but the typical street vendors are still to be found.

Belle Époque architecture

My friend from University Bryan came to meet me and we walked towards the center to see some of the sites. Here was the Continental Hotel. Nearby is the Notre Dame Cathedral, which along with the Opera house are all landmarks of Belle Époque architecture.

Central landmark Bitexco Tower

From this park one sees the iconic Bitexco Tower in the center. It is easy to use as a reference point to find one’s way and recognizable by its heliport which I have been told is too dangerous to land on because of the ever shifting winds.

Preserved architecture

Not far from Bryan’s place was this beautiful mansion that now has a tearoom on the first floor. One can visit most of 2 floors that have been preserved and renovated to their historical glory as the residence of a wealthy Chinese merchant family that owned much of the nearby property. Sadly many such places in Saigon have been torn down to make way for ugly high-rises.

 

Saigon Fine Arts Museum

Close by was another of their properties now housing the Fine Arts Museum which contained some truly fine exhibitions but like most Vietnamese museums, had to throw in a lot of war artifacts in addition to what one would call art. Shown is also the courtyard of the Art Museum. Obviously there was some outstanding architecture in Saigon but unless it was spectacular enough, or protected by the right patrons, most older buildings have been razed over the last 2 decades and replaced with ugly substitutes but ones with much more floors, which means more rental space and potential profits.

 

Saigon Zoo, History Museum & Military Museum

There were a cluster of other sites in central Saigon. This is the entrance way to the Saigon Zoo. I did not go into the zoo itself but to the left inside the gates was the History Museum, which had extensive exhibitions including English explanations about Vietnamese history and culture. Directly across from the History Museum was another large temple worth visiting. Back outside the gateway to the zoo and across the street was the Military Museum, not dissimilar to the one in Hanoi. Lots of military hardware but more limiting in scope to my interests as the below mentioned War Remnants Museum.

Reunification Palace

This is the huge Reunification Palace that is one of the most visited tourist attractions but I didn’t go in. Maybe I am wrong but the descriptions in the guide books didn’t grab me as offering anything I hadn’t see elsewhere and the whole look of the place looked kind of creepy with its Soviet style austerity. It was also late in the afternoon and I decided not to spend the time and money.

War Remnants Museum

Instead of the Reunification Palace I spent the rest of my afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. Sure, I had seen lots of military displays but this really focused on the war with France and America including many photos and commentaries from westerners. They took pains to be objective and gave gratitude to the help of conscientious people around the world that helped shift public attitude from paranoia of communism to realization of how immoral the war really was. There were by far more foreign visitors here than at any other site I saw in Vietnam. I had to wonder about the name. Remnants are small pieces of something left behind; like memories which leads one to the word “memorial”, which is the word I think they actually intended.

Propaganda posters still in use

Back on the streets of Saigon one still sees posters touting the virtues of the communist party. So this form of persuasion is not just a historical artifact for the museums. That’s me with Ho Chi Minh and comrades.

Binh Tay Market in Cholon

My last day in Vietnam was in Saigon and I took a bus to the Binh Tay Market in Cholon, which is known as the Chinese quarter. It was good sized but I didn’t find it much different than other covered markets I had seen, nor did I see a noticeable difference in the neighborhood.

Chinese Quarter of Cholon

From the market I headed off to see half dozen temples and on the way passed this small park. In the pool is a dragon; so was this an example of something Chinese? So many Vietnamese symbols including much of the traditional characters were borrowed from the Chinese so I am not sure how to tell the difference.

Cholon Joan of Arc Catholic Church & school

Close by in Cholon, I ran across the Joan of Arc Catholic Church and school. Interesting were the mixing of totally different architectural styles.

Cholon Temples

The other things of note in Cholon were a number of Temples. The first of the temples I got to was small but well decorated, impressive in its style rather than size.

Thien Hau Temple

The Thien Hau Temple is supposed to be the oldest remaining temple in Ho Chi Minh City and it had some unique looking details. The name refers to a Chinese sea goddess Mazu. It is a separate belief often associated with Taoism and Buddhism whose followers are mostly from southern China and Taiwan.  This style of inlaid ceramic mosaic was unusual. Otherwise, burning incense and making offerings at the back of the temple was standard fare.

More temples in Cholon

Continuing my wanderings through Cholon I visited a couple of other temples in the area that show a progression to bigger, shinier decoration. Not sure of the names though or if this was the entrance and interior of one temple or shots of 2 different ones. …

To Phu Quoc Island by bus & boat

I went down and back to Phu Quoc Island shortly after arriving in Saigon. On short notice, I had to pay more than usual and thus opted to go by bus and ferry and only splurge for a flight for the return leg. Despite hearing that Phu Quoc should be over commercialized, I found it to be the nicest although not cheapest place in Vietnam.

The trip was not easy though as I got picked up by a van, transferred 20 minutes later to a bus depot where we went by a mid-sized bus for 40 minutes to get to our sleeper bus. It drove through the Mekong Delta but it was dark out so I couldn’t see the country side. I had eaten a meal with tofu before leaving, even commenting to some other tourists there that I rarely if ever got sick from the food in third world countries. But within a couple of hours I was feeling bad.

Food poisoning set back

The sleeper stopped about 3.30 am and I was told to get out and go to another small van everyone else on the bus continued on. As I got out of the bus, I not only threw up but started to get diarrhea and soiled my pants a bit. About 40 minutes later I was dropped in front of a closed office in the town of Rach Gia. I sat there with my backpack and vomited profusely and felt like just crawling into a ball. Funny thing was that there were already people going out for a walk and blaring music that seemed to be to encourage people getting up and exercising.

Eventually a cafe opened across the street and the woman encouraged me to come and relax with them and I sipped a coke. Eventually the travel agency office opened and they merely verified that I had a ticket and said that I needed to go to the harbor to catch the ferry. Luckily it was just a few hundred meters walk but I continued to vomit my guts out. But better that it came before I went on the ferry than during the 2 hour ride.

Phu Quoc Island accommodation

Once on the Island, I got a van taxi with a bunch of other tourists but the driver was a bit obsessed about taking people to the place he recommended. To make peace I took a look and saw that one of the places I wanted to check out was very close by. The touted place was not bad but 20 USD for a bungalow.

I went to the next place and was told I could have bungalow that looked as nice for just 15 USD but then suddenly they claimed that it had been promised to someone else. For the same price I get a room up on top of the main house; not nearly as nice but by then I was so out of it that I took it, showered and had a rest. These were the bungalows and my room was at the top of the while building to the left. This was the view going down to the beach from my place.

Phu Quoc beach restaurant

This was the restaurant from my place. Unlike Mui Ne, the restaurants and bars were mostly right on the beach and there was not much garbage except at the back of a few empty lots. Most of the guests were westerners and a good mixture at that.

Phu Quoc sites of interest

There were some sights around the island but it took a couple of days for my stomach to recover and I just stuck to the beach although I strolled pretty far. At one place there were these concrete dolphins and mermaid statues and nearby a crazy looking place with other statues.

Back to Saigon, reflections of Vietnam

My flight back to Saigon was delayed but uneventful. I spent 3 days there before returning home catching up with my old friend from University and looking around the sites shown previously. In all, I was happy with my trip to Vietnam. It was more developed than I expected and the quality of accommodation and food and other services for tourist was quite high. The down side was that the level of English his not high, even at tourist places. The quality of buildings and lack of open poverty was commendable but a lot of charm of old styles of architecture and life in general seem to have been lost in the road to modernization.

My friend commented that few tourists return to Vietnam. It is not that it is difficult or unsafe, on the contrary; but I think most of its sites are over shadowed by other places that are even more spectacular. The temples and ruins are nothing compared to India, the food and beaches not nearly as good as in Thailand etc. But if one lives in the moment and takes it for what it is, then Vietnam was well worth seeing.

If given the opportunity I would see more of the Mekong Delta, go to the tunnels in Cu Chi, visit Con Dao Island and find a way to get more off of the beaten track and see some of the western highlands. There are other countries I’ve yet to see so I cannot foresee going back to Vietnam right away but maybe in combination with seeing Burma and Cambodia I might get back again.

So, those were just a few tales from my many travels over the last thirty and something years. I hope you've enjoyed another side of a traveling clown! If you want, write me an email or better yet, book my show or set a link to this website or just state me as the beneficiary of your will!

To book or see more information about Tom's clown show and entertainment, visit one or both of his clown websites:

www.clowntombolton.com

www.clown-event.de