Moving from North to South, this post encapsulates Hoi An, Da Nang (briefly), Can Tho, and Ho Chi Minh City.
I arrived in Hoi An ready to slow things down. From my Easy Rider motorcycle chauffeur I was brought the Cheerful Hoi An Hostel, where Hien (the owner) promptly greeted me and provided a long introduction to her approach and Hoi An. She authentically cared about the experience of her guests and is probably the nicest hostel hostess ever, bordering on overbearing.
Hoi An was once an economic capital of Vietnam, but as boats got bigger in the 19th and 20th centuries they were no longer able to navigate inland, and commerce went elsewhere. One holdover industry from this time is the tailoring. Hoi An’s streets are overloaded with tailors and leather shops, which predominantly cater to tourists. It’s known as one of the best places in the world to get custom clothing. For my first stop I went to check out custom tailor. Whoops! I had been wanting a new winter coat which i figured i’s shop for on sale at the end of the season, which turned into a bespoke coat along with a suit, and a 3-piece suit, and four shirts, and two ties, and two pocket squares (the ties and hankerchiefs were on the house after I spent too much on clothes I didn’t necessarily need but was confident I could use). Hopefully I have some job interviews to show off my haul. I wound up having 3 fittings after the initial consult, and left very happy with the results despite it being a little over the top.
While at the tailor, Vietnam beat Thailand in soccer, and people rejoiced quite audibly. A motorcycle parade then ensued for hours. This was a world cup qualifier during the Southeast Asia Cup. I happened to be in Ho Chi Minh City for the final, if you stay tuned you’ll get treated to some more detail about the motorcycle parades. Like Hue, Hoi An really comes alive when the night market lights up at night.
Hoi An’s old town it chock full of small temples and other interesting and historically rich sites. For about $6 you can buy a 5-pack of entry tickets to get you into your choice of about 40 different sites. I wasn’t too picky about where I wound up.
The Phouc Kien Assembly Hall was probably my favorite. I think the following images are from the Phouc Kien and another similar temple, but you get the idea.
This old house was less interesting than it appeared from the street but more interesting than I feared the second I walked in. It was the last wealthy family’s house in Hoi An, and where I learned that once freight boats became larger and trade could no longer occur in Hoi An, the port moved to Da Nang (or so I understood it) and Hoi An was left behind to later become a tourist town.
The evening of my first full day in Hoi An I headed to the beach. It was winter and very windy with major wave activity. There was no swimming, and the tide came in quickly. As i walked up a sandbar the windblown sand stung the backs of my my calves. Because Vietnam is all east coast, I watched the sunset behind the beach. It was still peaceful and pleasant despite the wrong directionality and wind and stinging sand.
Upon my realization that sunrise would be occurring on “the right side,” and a partly cloudy forecast, I left the option of seeing sunrise open. I happened to wake up around 4/4:30 naturally and went for it. It was about 15 minutes by bicycle, which were provided by the hostel.The beach was actually facing northeast, which I realized on the way back into town, so I didn’t quite see the sunrise over the water, but it was a nice way to start the day.
On my way back into town I got to see the post-sunrise sun over the rice paddies – which completed the worthiness of my morning beach trip.
I checked out a handful of additional temples and shrines and whatnot over the next couple of days in Hoi An. I knew I’d stay at least two days, and decided upon a third based on Hien’s hospitality, wanting to avoid rushing the tailor, and just liking the feeling of Hoi An. I went to book a flight out, and based on prices for day 3 vs day 4 ($30 vs $100), wound up staying in Hoi An for a fourth day. There was no shortage of anything to see, like more temples.
I wound up doing a cooking class with 7 other people from my hostel. It began with picking ingredients from the market with our instructor, Wee (it was spelled Qui but she encouraged us to think of it phonetically). I didn’t photograph the more gruesome animal part of the market.
After the market we boarded a van that took us to a boat that took us to many boats that took us to the cooking class.
Finally it was time to cook! We made four courses, two of which (spring/summer rolls and pho) I will probably try to recreate in the US assuming finding the ingredients isn’t a nightmare.
Hien talked a big game about her street food tour, which wound up with 12 people on it. We traveled to most places by bike. In typical Hien fashion, she provides this for free, because she wants people to enjoy it and Hoi An and not feel like she’s taking advantage of them. I attempted to buy her a roughly 40 cent dish, and she refused. There were seven stops in all…
And finally some last few photos of Hoi An. This wound up being the most time I’ve spent in any one spot since my trip began in Munich.
I had told Hien that I planned to fly to Ho Chi Minh City and do a day trip to the Mekong Delta. She suggested I just fly to the delta, which I did, to the city of Can Tho, via the Da Nang airport. I had gotten lunch in Da Nang on my ride into Hoi An, so I had already seen a couple of cool bridges and understood that there wasn’t much else here. The dragon bridge, which I would’ve also liked to have seen lit up at night, seemed to be the crowning attraction in an otherwise modern and boring city.
Can Tho is the 4th biggest city in Vietnam, about a 3 hour drive south of Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t care for the part of town I stayed in which just seemed boring. Once I arrived, a long walk treated me to a city that didn’t have too much character. It felt pretty developed, but still with loads of bikes going every which way on wide roads confined between somewhat uninteresting buildings with shops that didn’t overtly seem to cater to tourists. As a result there was much less English.
As I saw more of the city I appreciated some of the canals and water features that ran through it. The wharf was slightly busier and much more touristy. This was the one part of Can Tho where locals consistently spoke English, as they tried to offer me things. After my first impression of Can Tho being a not-quite-ghost-town, being harassed to buy goods and services was almost comforting as I had grown so accustomed to it for the previous few weeks.
It was a monday afternoon and not particularly busy anywhere until I got to the fish market which was active but clearly past its prime (both in terms of merchandise and odors) and beginning to shut down. There were countless live animals of various species, and even more no longer living, raw, cooked, or preserved in some fashion.
I walked around until exhaustion. After resting for a bit back at the hostel I met 2 Americans, 1 Irish, and 1 Dutch guy. The five of us all had the same idea and headed out to the night market. The American guys were quality people, while the Dutch was the most negative I’ve met traveling. He hated Vietnam and only had bad things to say about the other places he’s been. The Irish guy had just gotten to Southeast Asia and was looking to eat adventurously, so he and I each got a chicken foot. It wasn’t bad (wasn’t good either). It reminded me of when you’re out eating wings and you see someone who left meat on their bone and you try to finish it and get tiny bits of meat and cartilage and maybe a bit of skin. The stalls in the night market looked pretty similar, usually with raw seafood (probably from the market pictured above) that they cooked to order.
I awoke at 4:30am and headed to the dock to get in a sampan, where I rode to the Cai Rang floating market. Seeing the Mekong River Delta, and the floating market, were my top point of interest for southern Vietnam. This is essentially a farmer’s market where each shop is on its own boat. The floating market is most active from 6-9am, where salespeople come from farms near and far to sell bulk items to smaller shoppers, who usually bring their food to street stalls or markets or restaurants. We rode under a hazy starry sky for a little while. As the sky was lighting up I was worried we’d crash into a neighboring boat, which turned out to be a floating cafe.
As we neared the market we passed a durian boat, the smell unmistakable. Then more and more boats were nearby. They advertised their wares (typically produce) by hanging it on top of long bamboo poles at the front of their boat.
Again, I exclaimed within my head, “we’re gonna hit that woman’s boat!” Oh wait, we’re pulling up alongside her too. With a rebar hook on a string my driver Viet attached our boat to hers. What is she doing? Cooking? Yes, she was cooking pho on her small sampan, and he got me a bowl of it. All of a sudden he grabbed a wooden board to my side and I had a table.
There were maybe 200+ boats in the market, about half were tourists and half were buying or selling good. After breakfast we passed what Viet called “supermarkets,” boats that sold maybe 10 different types of food. I was told each boat can carry up to 4,000 kg of fruit or vegetables. That’s almost 10,000 lbs.
We made it through market before sun had risen above bldgs on water edge, and then turned back to go through it once more. With so much debris in water, multiple times pull out propeller to removed plastic bag or in one case a diaper that had gotten caught on it. Our last stop within the market was another boat selling drinks. I didn’t want another coffee, so I got a coconut.
Visiting the floating market was beautiful, fascinating, tasty, bizarre, bazaar, and infinitely unique. This continues to stick out in my memory as a special moment from a special country on a special trip. Then we went up tributary to two more stops on the tour. First was a noodle factory, where 4 people were working to make about 700 lbs of noodles per day.
I had seen some of the same technology of the noodle factory in my Hot An cooking class. It was strange to see what I thought was archaic methods employed for “mass production.” These guys didn’t seem to have too big or complex an operation, and no modern technology whatsoever.
After the noodle factory was the fruit garden. Some things were out of season, but here I saw starfruit, jackfruit, peppercorns, melons, mangos, papaya, plums, durian, and banana, among others. There were also lots of fish, in small canals and ponds.
I felt great about my trip to Can Tho and the tour I went on. I was excited for the trip on the Mekong, and my morning exceeded expectations. I was now done here and got on a sleeper bus for a 3.5 hour ride to Ho Chi Minh City. It was the afternoon, so I didn’t sleep, but did finish the book I was reading.
The city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) after Vietnam’s unification, which followed the “American War” as it was called there. The city looked pretty developed from the road. Tall buildings throughout and tall cranes erecting modern buildings. The roads seemed to be of a better quality than most in Southeast Asia. Hordes of motorcycles still run red lights all over town despite the modernity. On larger roads they’re segregated with channelizers, medians, or railings. Instead of forcing bikers to stay on the right side of the road, this caused many to use the sidewalks or still go the wrong way.
I got street food dinner and did some exploring by foot in the busy neighborhood of my hostel. I was lucky to be in Vietnam for their three prior victories in the Southeast Asia football tournament, two in Hoi An and one in Hanoi. The final against Indonesia was this night, so I watched on the sidewalk alongside a big crowd, where we were customers of a juice and smoothie cart.
We won! People weren’t violent, but went nuts. The motorcycle parade I saw in Hot An was nothing compared to this. All two million bikes in the city must have hit the street in this moment. I hung out watching the crowds slowly drip down the street until it was complete gridlock for maybe an hour. Around 10pm I went to bed, while the honking and music and cheering and vuvuzelas stayed noisy for another 2 hours.
An aside: I got scuba certified four years ago. I haven’t been diving since my certification, but will be going in Thailand in two short weeks. I knew I needed a refresher, so in the morning I went scuba diving in a rooftop pool in HCMC. This was a very necessary refresher, both to restore my skills, comfort, and confidence being underwater.
As an American, I knew I needed to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. I had done some reading on the war leading up to my trip. Throughout my time in Vietnam I found that locals loved Americans – we spend money there as travelers and there didn’t seem to be any ill will harbored about the war. The museum was upsetting in so many ways. I was very moved by the content. And I was also bothered by how little I previously knew about this recent part of American history, and in part blamed my education (it also could’ve been my fault, if I just didn’t retain the information I learned in high school). I knew about opposition to the war, and some of what the war was like, mostly from fictional pop culture. I was never taught much detail on it and didn’t have a good understanding of what led up to it and how it ended until I looked into it myself. There were heavy exhibits on torture, death and destruction, agent orange, an exhibit on American opposition to the war, and information about humanitarian and veteran activities after the war to try to help rebuild.
After the museum I didn’t want to sit somewhere and wallow, so I did some more walking around. Nearby was Notre Dame, to my dismay it was undergoing significant restoration. It was also right across the street from the French-built still functioning post office.
My last evening in Vietnam I headed up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower (each one of these seems to be getting cheaper after splurging on the Burj Khalifa and less so again on the sands in Singapore). The views were ok, but it was too hazy from the pollution to really see far. I got a Manhattan on the bar on the 51st floor.
I saw a wee bit more of HCMC on my way out the following morning, but it was a quiet an uninspiring end to an incredible couple of weeks in Vietnam. From the splendor of Halong Bay, to the quieter and interesting Hoi An where I stayed in the best hostel on Earth, to my unforgettable morning on the Mekong Delta, and of course the food, which I knew I loved and totally loved throughout the trip, this country ranks up there. Hopefully I can return someday, sooner rather than later. Some finals photos from HCMC:
Until next time, Vietnam.