The second leg of a South East Asian journey
Flying into Hanoi from Siem Reap, my Mum and I commenced a 7 day Vietnam trip. We had both wanted to travel to Vietnam for years, many in my Mum’s case. Our itinerary comprised of three nights in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) respectively. The two cities gave us fascinating comparisons of Northern and Southern Vietnam. Hanoi was our first stop before flying onto Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi – Vietnam trip begins
The first city in our Vietnam trip, Hanoi, certainly didn’t disappoint. Arriving at night, we ordered a Grab car to the Old Quarter where my Uncle had recommended we stay. The city is incredibly vibrant with scooters, vendors and cyclists absolutely everywhere. Hanoi has many narrow streets with abundant shops, eateries and cafes. Generally, the temperature was cooler than Chiang Mai and especially Siem Reap, which made a nice reprieve from the humidity.
Sites of interest – Day 1
Our first day in Hanoi involved sightseeing in districts covering the Old Quarter. The stunning Hoan Kiem Lake, Library of Hoan Kiem and St Joseph’s Cathedral were our first stops. We visited the Presidential Palace and the Quan Thanh Temple in Ba Dinh Square. After lunch we walked to the Tran Quoc Pagoda situated in the middle of the Thuy Khue lake. The interior of all the temples were remarkably colourful and the structures so ornate. Lastly, we explored the poignant Hoa Lo Prison, used by French colonists for political prisoners. In addition, the prison was later used by North Vietnam for U.S. prisoners of the Vietnam war. We dined in the Old Quarter and had drinks in a fourth floor restaurant in Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square. The night views of the Hoan Kiem Lake and surrounds were spectacularly atmospheric.
We walked to the French Quarter where we witnessed the Thang Long Imperial Citadel and the Chua Mot Cot shrine. We revisited the Ba Dinh Square area as there were many cultural sites. In the evening Mum and I discovered a cafe chain called Cong Caphe, which produced a wide variety of delicious coffees. We would later discover Cong Caphe in Ho Chi Minh City, the second city of our Vietnam trip. Another evening activity was the Hang Ma night market which spanned several streets. Notable food that we sampled during the trip include Pho, Bun cha and Banh mi. Overall we felt Hanoi was an enchanting place, architecturally fabulous and culturally diverse.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The two-hour flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City touched down at lunchtime. This meant we immediately wanted to try further Vietnamese food, namely Bun thit nuong and Cach Lam Salad. We stayed in Ho Chi Minh District 1, close to the river in Ben Thanh, spending most of our three days in this area. The Ben Thanh night markets were a particular highlight. Though most of the markets I’ve visited in SE Asia offer a much larger array of produce than in the Western world.
The following day we walked through District 1 exploring Den Tho Vua Hung temple, the towering Saigon Skydeck and Union Square. We dined at a restaurant chain called Mon Hue recommended by my friend Tom. This offered inexpensive, healthy and delicious Vietnamese cuisine. We tasted Com tam and a Vietnamese noodle dish. In the evening we strolled around Ben Thanh, taking in landmarks, dodging scooters and enjoying in the vibrant atmosphere of central Saigon.
Cu Chi Tunnels (one-hour trip out of Ho Chi Minh City)
On our final full day we toured the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground complex used by Viet Cong soldiers. The tunnels were used in the battle against the U.S. and South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. On route the bus stopped by a lacquer painting shop where handicrafts were being made by the handicapped. I found this experience a little difficult, however, I was comforted by the amazing work the program was achieving. Our tour guide was charismatic and a veteran of the war whose allegiance was with South Vietnam and the U.S. When he spoke about fighting North Vietnam, his own people, I found this terribly hard to fathom. The Vietnam trip further emphasised how horrific and bloody the Vietnam war was for those involved.
The tour showed us war relics, exhibits and memorials, evidence of the brutality and torture many soldiers incurred. For example, traps: sticking trap, rolling trap, window trap, swinging up trap, see-saw trap and folding chair trap. We saw waxwork models displaying torture equipment and tools, before discovering the tunnel passages. Our guide gave instructions for health and safety as the tunnels are quite eerie, especially if you are claustrophobic. They become progressively narrower to the point where you are almost crawling. However, there is an exit halfway through for those uneasy. I was impressed with my Mum for completing the passages as usually she is uncomfortable in confined spaces. I imagined what soldiers actually had to endure because for tourism purposes the tunnels had been widened.
Final experiences on the Vietnam trip
The final evening involved an additional Vietnamese dinner and an anticipated return to Cong Caphe, already a firm favourite. My Mum and I enjoyed both cities yet marginally preferred Hanoi due to the interesting cultural and architectural aspects. Vietnam in general was thoroughly fascinating and is one of the most interesting places I have visited to date. Bangkok was the final leg of our overall trip, where we would spend three nights before returning to Chiang Mai.