Vietnam for Christmas

I am so far behind in writing my posts… sorry. We took a bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on December 8, 2019. The place we stayed in HCM was a good location, central for everything, but a very small room. After we checked in we wandered around looking for a place for dinner. Actually, what we were looking for was a specific ATM that gave out the most we could get. In Vietnam, the ATMs will have a maximum of about 3 million Dong. However, we read a few blogs that said one specific one would dispense up to 10 million. We never found it though. So, we settled for a restaurant that took credit card… McDonalds. Not a great first meal in Vietnam but the only time we did that. We did find in the end a Citibank ATM that gave us 6 million Dong. We actually explored a lot while we wandered around looking for the ATM and it was a good introduction to the city.

The next day we continued to wander around. We found some more traditional Vietnamese meals including Pho (pronounced fuh) and bun bo nam bo (not sure if this is what it was actually called or the name of the restaurant… basically it is a noodle dish with some meat and veggies in it and a bit of broth). I got new glasses made because my current ones were all scratched up. They also replaced the lenses in my current pair. I would pick them up the next day. Later on I got a massage while Nic got her nails done and got a haircut. It was unfortunately not a good hair cut… it was quite uneven. On the way home we booked a day trip to the Mekong Delta.

The day trip included a few stops along the way. We stopped at an island where we tried the local fruits and honey. Some local people sang some songs and played some music for us. We took a boat ride on the river on a local boat. It was only about a half hour or so. It was interesting to paddle through the jungle river. On the way back we stopped at a Buddhist temple. It had a very large reclining Buddha and a large sitting happy Buddha. We got dropped off back in HCM near the main tourist market.

That evening we wandered around the backpacker street. It is a very busy street on every day but it was crazy busy this day. That is because Vietnam was playing Cambodia in the final game of the Southeast Asia games in football. We had been warned at the market not to be too far from home if Vietnam won. Nicola wanted to see the action. It may have been a mistake because when Vietnam won, everybody got on their motorbikes and drove around… honking, waving flags and honking horns. We could not get across the street for more than an hour. The population of HCM is about 15 million and there are about 12 million motorbikes in the city. They do not stop for pedestrians and they will run you down on the sidewalk. I think all of them were on the street that night.

Over the next few days we just continued to explore the city. We spent a fair amount of time in the market and bought some silk scarves and a couple of day packs. I mailed the scarves home to my family for Christmas. Nicola bought a knockoff Jack Wolfskin backpack in HCM about 17 years ago. She had it with her on this trip. She bought a new one on this trip and got rid of the other one. We went to the movies a couple of times and had a couple more massages.

On December 13th we flew from HCM to Da Nang and took a car service to Hoi An. We stayed in a homestay in Hoi An. It was walking distance to almost everything. The theme of our six days in Hoi An was getting custom made clothes. I started out wanting to get one suit made but ended up getting two suits, two long sleeved shirts, and three short sleeve shirts. Nic got two skirts, two pairs of shorts, two rompers, and a dress made. So much for just getting one thing 😉 We each also got a custom made pair of shoes. On the first day for each, we went for fittings. Then on the second day we went back to try them on. On the third day we came back to try them on again after adjustments. Then we could pick them up. The shoes needed a few more stretchings to fit well. None of this was as cheap as we expected but in the end it was nice to get clothes that fit us so well.

The other big thing that happened for me in Hoi An was that I got a tattoo. I did a lot of research into tattoo studios in Vietnam. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I was a tattoo virgin. The 1984 Studio in Hoi An had a lot of positive reviews online and the studio looked very clean and professional. They answered all of the questions with what you want to hear. My design was the world map with the words Big World 2 See underneath. I hesitated a bit but ultimately decided to go for it. I am really happy with it. It took about two hours and cost about $150 CAD.

One day in Hoi An, we took bicycles from our homestay and rode them to the beach. It was only about 7 or 8 km one way. We paid to park the bicycles at the beach and then wandered around for a while.  It was a bit cool to swim. One evening we went to see the AO Show. It is a traditional show using a lot of bamboo… kind of akin to a simple cirque du soleil. Most evenings we wandered around the night market and the river just exploring. One night we did a romantic boat ride which only lasted about ten minutes.

The main traditional foods to try in Hoi An are White Rose (a dumpling made from a local noodle), morning glory salad, caul au (a noodle dish with pork and veggies), and bahn mi (a Vietnamese sandwich). One night we went to a restaurant that was highly reviewed online. We met Keny who was sitting next to us. He is from the US but has been living in Thailand. He was on a trip to Vietnam to reset his Thai visa. We ran into him a few more times in Hoi An.

On December 19th, we flew from Da Nang to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. On the way to the airport in Da Nang, we asked the driver to stop so we could take a few pics of the Dragon Bridge. The flight was about an hour or so. In Hanoi, we stayed very central again. We were in Hanoi until December 24th and then returned for one night on the 26th. For the 24th to the 26th, we booked a boat trip to Halong Bay. More about that later.

On our first night in Hanoi, we wandered around the lake and night market area. They were setting up a stage for a concert later in the week. On the second day, we met up with Keny again. We went to the restaurant where Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown. The dish to eat here is called Bun Cha. It is a noodle dish with pork and you get a bowl of fresh greens and herbs that you put in with it. After the bun cha we went to the Museum of History. Then we wandered down to find the original egg coffee. It is a coffee made with whipped egg yolk. Finally, made our way to the beer street. It was a good day overall and was quite a bit longer than we expected.

The next morning we went on a free walking tour. Unlike tip-based free walking tours, this was really free. The tour guides do it to improve on their English and to practice. It was about a three hour tour and we visited the house where Ho Chi Minh signed the declaration of independence. We went to the central market, the gate of old town, a local traditional home, and ended up back near the stage for the concert. The artists were rehearsing for the show. One of them was a very famous transgender singer. I got pretty close to her as she went by with her security.

The following day we went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The lines are long but they move fast. You do not get much time to see him lying in state and have to just keep moving. It is only open until about 11 am but I think as long as you arrive before it closes you can get in. From here we went to the Presidential Palace and wandered around the estate. We got to see the one pedestal pagoda. We also explored the Citadel. It was used as the headquarters for the People’s Army of Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. We were able to go inside one of the bunkers.

On December 23rd, we did a day trip to Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing). Our first stop was at Hoa Lu, an ancient capital of the region. Then we went on a boat trip through Trang An. It was a two hour ride through beautiful grottoes, one of which was used in the filming of the movie King Kong. Our boat driver was an older woman which really amazed me because it was a lot of work. Finally we went to a place where we climbed 500 stairs to get up to a pagoda on top of a hill. At the bottom there was a rice field with a walkway through it. It was a lovely day trip.

From the 24th to the 26th, we went to Halong Bay. It was pretty expensive (approx. $400 CAD each) for two nights and three days. We decided to treat ourselves for Christmas and it was Nic’s present to me and my present to her. Most of the people on the boat were only there for one night and two days (actually we were the only ones on our boat doing two nights). However, they got a few hours in Halong Bay on the first day and then a couple of hours the next morning. It took almost three hours to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi. So, two days and one night seem to be mostly time spent in the van. On the first afternoon, we had a boat ride through the grottoes. On the second day, we boarded a day boat and then kayaked around for several hours. On the third day, we climbed up to a cave near where we had overnighted. On the first night, there was a bit of a party. There were numbered cards on the Christmas tree that corresponded to a present. Everyone got a nice little Christmas gift.

After Halong Bay we returned to Hanoi and stayed at the same homestay where we had stayed before we left. The guys that worked there were quite helpful and very friendly. We went to a popular pizza restaurant. They cooked the pizza in a wood fired right in front of where we were sitting. On December 27th we flew to Luang Prabang, Laos for the next phase of our SE Asia adventure.

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