Vietnam does not exactly sound like a Christmas destination but with the chilly winters back at home, I decided to visit the country which braved one of the longest wars in the last century for my holidays. I must say though after the visit to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (earlier Saigon) I figured out that there is more to Vietnam than just the war.
We landed in the capital city of Hanoi a couple of days before Christmas. The airport was big which broke my first myth about the city. There were quite a few ATMs and currency exchange points at the airport exit gate so having local cash was not a problem before entering the city. The city looked festive with quite a few shops being decorated for Christmas. The traffic was quite heavy and there were loads of two- wheelers on the road. I realized within a few minutes that traffic regulations as a concept was still to mature there.
Hotels are not very expensive in Vietnam. Our hotel Muonh Thanh in Hanoi which was in one of the main streets of the city would be less than INR 5K per night including breakfast. The street outside the hotel had quite a few cafes which always seemed to be busy.
Since we had just travelled in that day and were tired, we tried out the famous Huong Sen Spa on the first day itself. The spa I must say was an experience of sorts. First, it’s a community spa like a hammam (of course, separate wings for men and women). Yet, it was different. Unlike the Turkish hammam where the focus is a lot on the bath followed by a short massage, here there were shorter but multiple rituals to be followed for the bath and a much longer massage. The attendants did not speak English at all. However, through their actions they were able to convey what needed to be done. And if you didn’t understand then through pull and push they would manage to make you do it in very awkward ways. The ritual included a hot shower, followed by a soak in a hot tub filled with some aromatic colored water. After this one had to move into a bath tub filled with warm water to get a back scrub. This was followed by hot and freezingly cold sauna followed by another shower. This entire exercise took about 30 minutes post which there was a one-hour long massage. The women knew their job though they did not speak English and were busy chatting with each other in Vietnamese. To save oneself the embarrassment of being in that state with 8 others, its better to keep your eyes shut with the cucumber slices they put on them and just go with the flow. Post the massage they also served us rice congee cooked with fish. This entire experience was for less than 20 USD!! More than the cost, I was inspired by the bodypositivity demonstrated by this concept of community spas irrespective of shapes and sizes.
Refreshed after the spa visit, we were ready to explore the weekend Night Market in the Old Quarters of Hanoi. The Old Quarter district is a shopping place on regular days too but on the weekends, it gets converted to a walking street at night and is abuzz from 8 p.m onwards. It’s a good place to pick up souvenirs from Vietnam. Do carry cash in Vietnamese Dongs as most shops don’t accept cards or USD. At the Old Quarter, we also saw a water puppet show. Though it would be entertaining for kids, the finesse with which the puppet show was conducted and the story telling was a good watch. The show lasts for an hour. Would recommend if you are travelling with children, not a must watch if you are not.
There are lots of restaurants in The Old Quarter. We did try Duong’s Restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese meal. It’s a well-known restaurant though a bit cramped. The kitchen seemed to be on the first floor and I really felt for the staff as they ran up and down the spiral stairs. It was a 3-course meal which started with a salad, followed by pork spring rolls, stir fried chicken and a spicy fish preparation that I liked the most. All this was served with sticky rice. Dessert was a fruit platter. This was a typical meal there, just that the preparations changed a bit. Dessert was always a fruit platter irrespective of where I had the meal.
The next day we took a boat ride to Ha Long bay, the famous world heritage site named by UNESCO. It’s a garden of limestone monolithic islands of various shapes and sizes. The boats can accommodate around 20-30 people. The weather in December was chilly on the boat so a warm jacket is a must. The boat took us to one of the few accessible caves. The cave had massive walls of stalactites and stalagmites which had been lit up and looked beautiful. The walk into the cave is a long one and includes climbing a lot of stairs so would not recommend it to people with mobility challenges. They are massive in size so not claustrophobic. If you don’t feel like going inside there are also waiting areas with a few shops etc where you can wait for others. The boats do not exit from the same place where they enter so would be good to find out the exit point and meet your friends there. After visiting the cave, the rest of the ride was spent meandering around the garden of islands which was a serene and beautiful view. We were also served lunch on the boat which included mostly sea food – shrimps, squid and crab. There are vegetarian options too if you inform in advance.
For food lovers, in Hanoi one can have meals in traditional homes as well in the Old Quarter. The owners serve the meals in a dining room, but they also show around their house and explain their rituals and customs. We did visit one of these homes for dinner which was run by 5 sisters. They explained how they worship their ancestors, showed us their temple as well as took us around the property which was surrounded by their personal pond. The meal was home cooked and while it had the same pork spring rolls, ramen, salads, and fish, they were all healthy and homemade, and the host explained the recipes and answered all our questions. We were surprised to see that even Vietnamese have a concept of “Paan” as the host plucked a leaf from their tree and filled it with betel nuts to offer to us.
Being the capital city, visiting the Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh and his house was also on our agenda. The visit to the Mausoleum was regulated and one had to quietly keep following instructions with guards all around. The chamber which houses his body is quite cold and very quiet. His house has now been converted into a museum. The vibrant yellow color of the house was very different from how I would have imagined his abode to be. The one pillared pagoda and the surrounding greenery was a cheerful change after the tryst with history.
An interesting place to see in Hanoi was the Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius. Despite his principles coming across as anti-feminist, the temple was interesting with areas marked for studying, giving exams and also getting ones name carved out on the pillar on achieving a doctorate! The bonsai trees at the temple and the Unicorn which was scented with incense sticks seemed to draw a lot of attention from tourists.
HO CHI MINH City (Saigon):
I was now really looking forward to visiting Ho Chi Minh City to get a bit closer to Vietnam’s war history. Saigon was a much bigger city and much more westernized as compared to the capital Hanoi. Due to its colonization by the French, there was quite a bit of French architecture reflected in the central areas of the city. Since we reached the city on Christmas eve, it was decorated all over. Our hotel, The Bay Hotel, was very close to the downtown area and waterfront which added to the festive feel.
In Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels which were the base of operations of Viet Cong and were used by Viet Cong Soldiers as hiding places during the combats. Somehow, I am surprised that while there are pictures put by various tourists of the tunnels all of the over the net, there is very little relevant information shared on what can one experience there. So here is my bit – for the visitors there are a only a few lengths of the tunnels open to go in. Of the overall two-hour experience – only a few minutes are spent inside the tunnel and that is also optional. Visitors walk through the forested area above the ground and would be shown various kinds of bamboo traps, entry points to tunnels, vents for entry of air into the tunnel, parts of the tunnels that were dining rooms, medical rooms etc. The stories of how indigenous simple ideas were used by natives to fight the massive American forces were more inspiring and engaging. I was particularly fascinated by the story of wearing sandals in reverse order to confuse the soldiers on the direction one had gone in. There is a shooting range inside as well and one can try a hand at real shooting. There is a souvenir shop, food outlet and washrooms inside too near the shooting range for others to wait while their friends try their hand at shooting. After nearly 1.5 hours, we got to experience the tunnel. The tunnel required one to climb down a set of steep stairs. One must bend about 90 degrees to walk in the tunnels and those 60-90 seconds can seem a bit claustrophobic. Do not try to turn back as you may cause problems for others who may have entered the tunnel behind you so if you are not sure about it even for a couple of minutes, better not go in. There is only space for once person at a time to walk forward. The entire tunnel journey lasts only for 2-3 minutes. One ends up admiring how petite the population may have been to survive in those tunnels. They also show a film on the history of the Cu Chi tunnels during the war and it can be disturbing for some so use your discretion.
Other areas worth seeing in Ho Chi Minh City are the Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office, which is an active post office but also converted into a touristy spot. Both are in the city center with malls and shops close to them. There are good restaurants too in that vicinity. There are war memorials as well in the city if you would like to visit. The Cu Chi tunnel experience was more real though than going to a war memorial. The river running through the city looks really dirty during the day, however, it’s a pleasant place for an outing at night. While we enjoyed a drink at one of the pubs at the waterfront, we could see that night cruises were popular as a boat went by every few minutes. The next day, we also did a boat cruise on the Mekong River that flows though Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and is the 12th longest river in the world. The cruise stops at various islands where one can get insights into bamboo and coconut farming. The yummy coconut meat was a delight as we cruised along the river. We had lunch on one of the islands. While the contents were nearly the same as the other Vietnamese meals we had, the fish served was one of the best decorated food items I witnessed in the country!
So now you know why I said, there is more to Vietnam than just the war.
Before I end this post, a few tips to keep in mind when you are in Vietnam:
- The Vietnamese currency runs in millions with 1 USD being equivalent to 23000 Vietnamese Dong. So do your math before you withdraw from the ATM. It may look like a large amount but of lesser value.
- ATMs are available everywhere though nearly all ATMs charge some kind of transaction fee
- The Vietnamese Dong is preferred by shopping outlets so its better to have local currency.
- Credit cards don’t work everywhere including in some hotels so do make sure you carry cash.
- Do pick up some of the bamboo and coconut fibre created towels and garments in Ho Chi Minh city 😊. They have great absorption capacity
- Be very careful while walking on the road as bikers don’t follow the red-light signals.
- The names are not pronounced as they are written so better to write addresses, names of hotels, restaurants etc to show when asking for directions.
- Vegetarian options if requested would primarily be salads or fruits so better to carry some pre-cooked meals if you are a vegetarian.
- There are green colored taxis available in Vietnam. The ones that are regulated have drivers wearing green ties. Some drivers run their own green taxis which are not regulated and are not recommended.
- Vietnam has visa on arrival for Indians but given the long queues, we decided to apply for Visa through the consulate in Delhi. The visa came in 4-5 days.
- For shopping, visit the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Its a massive bazaar like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. You can get all kind of souvenirs, trinkets, clothes, shoes etc. Do bargain hard as they inflate the prices expecting you to bargain.