This post was updated 01/2021
After a whirlwind time in Hong Kong, we head for our cruise ship and set sail for southeast Asia. On our first three stops, we visit Vietnam – What is this country that we had heard so much about really like?
For those of you traveling to Vietnam on a Cruise Ship … the ports are quite far from the Cities. In Hue, there is a one hour drive from the port to the city, and in Ho Chi Minh, it is closer to two hours each way.
When we docked in Halong Bay, we chose to stay in Halong rather than endure the three-plus-hour-long, one-way bus ride into Hanoi. You need to be aware of these travel times as it will affect what you see depending on your choices.
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Halong Bay – The First Stop On Our Visit Vietnam Cruise
Halong Bay is the jumping-off point from the cruise for Hanoi and most Americans, of course, head into Hanoi. The longtime capital of North Vietnam and now Vietnam in whole.
Hanoi is famous (or should I say infamous) for the “Hanoi Hilton” – the euphemistic name for the prisoner of war camp where the beloved late Senator John McCain, and many other American soldiers, were held by the North Vietnamese during the war.
After learning that the trip from Halong Bay to Hanoi is 3-1/2 to 4 hours one way, we decide this is not for us.
Instead, we hired a guide through Tours by Locals and toured the amazing waterways and caves that make up the UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay.
Our guide Alex was a tall (6’3″) young man recently out of the university. Alex and a few of his friends have just started their own company, Nom Nom Travel, in Hanoi.
Alex graciously took the train from Hanoi to Halong Bay to spend the two days with us in this beautiful area. Halong Bay (which means Descending Dragon in Vietnamese) is famous for its thousands of limestone karsts and small isles jutting up throughout the bay. Inside the karsts are many caves now set up for tourism.
Halong Bay – Learning to Cross the Street
Alex met us at the dock where the tender from our ship landed. From there it was a short walk to the docks where our “Junk” would take us out on the Bay for our tour. The first thing Alex taught us was how to cross the street in Vietnam.
To Westerners, the traffic in Asia looks crazy! No one ever truly stops, and signaling seems non-existent. Mopeds, motorcycles, cars, and bicycles crowd the streets along with people and animals.
“Just start walking,” Alex calmly told us. “Do not speed up or slow down, and most importantly, do not change direction once you start.”
The drivers of all the vehicles swirling around are continually gauging the distance between them and you and where you will be next. Drivers adjust their speed and direction based on all those around them.
As long as you move at a constant speed in the same general direction, the drivers will go around you. Crossing a street this way is an act of faith, but it works.
Halong Bay – Junk Boat Tour
Alex arranged an all-day cruise of Halong Bay with a traditional lunch served by the crew onboard the boat for our first day’s tour. As you cruise the bay on your classic “Junk” boat, you stop along the way to tour the amazing limestone caves. We made three stops, each a different experience.
Visiting the caves is physical; there is no easy way around. Typically there are many steps leading up to the entrance, then down into the cave and then up again to exit.
These cave sites are not set up as the way we do parks in the US, there is no disabled access (none that I saw). Inside the caves, the walkways are wet, and at times, quite slippery; there are not many handrails.
In November, when we visited, the average temperature was in the low 80’s, and the humidity was intense. These conditions may make you hesitant to visit the caves. But you will be missing out on a wonderful adventure if you don’t go here when you visit Vietnam.
I use a Fitbit that keeps track of flights of stairs and clocked in 50 flights on this hike. Shows you why you might want to get in shape for travel. But the views inside the caves and the surrounding bay from the high peaks are worth the workout.
We finish the day slowly sailing back to the harbor, lounging on the top deck of the boat, enjoying the beautiful afternoon sunlight.
Halong Bay – Halong City
The next morning, Alex takes us into the city of Halong. We stop for a traditional breakfast of Bun (vermicelli rice noodle soup) with barbecued pork and veggies. Then we participate in every Vietnamese’s favorite ritual, morning coffee, and people watching.
After the requisite long coffee break, we head on to see a temple. Almost every Asian city has a temple of great importance. It is necessary to visit and understand these temples to understand the people.
We finish up the morning and our visit to Halong at the Quang Ninh Museum, a newer museum with collections of both the natural history of the area and the people.
The museum is well-curated, and we enjoy learning about the history of this beautiful province, nearly as much as the school children who are visiting enjoy being out of their classrooms.
As We Visit Vietnam, We Stop in Hue
(Part One – the Country Side)
It’s the day after Halong Bay, and we are up again at 6 am for our day in Hue (pronounced “way” for us English speakers). Again we have a private guide and driver who meet us after we disembark the ship.
By the way, it’s raining… always bring a poncho, sack jack or umbrella. Thuan (Peter) Pham of Hue Private Excursions meets us with his driver, Mr. Binh, and away we go in a comfy late model Toyota FourRunner.
The outskirts of Hue are very agricultural, and fishing is big. There are still many water buffalo roaming in the fields and along the highways and byways.
We stop by a small fishing village on the roadside along the way. My husband notices several stands where what look like “stills” are on an open fire. He asks Peter what is being derived from the still.
Peter explains that the farmers are refining Eucalyptus oil from the leaves of the Eucalyptus trees around the countryside. The oil is thought to have healing powers, and people rub the oil on achy joints and muscles. Additionally, it is used to keep away fleas and mosquitos.
We bought some of the oil, of course. Even though the bottle is wrapped in plastic and shoved in a resealable plastic bag, we can still smell the fragrant Eucalyptus scent.
Our next stop was the local market and farming village. The focus on fresh takes precedence in the market. Most produce is harvested and sold the same day. Fowl (chickens and ducks) are still alive while waiting to be someone’s dinner. Shoppers are very focused on the ingredients.
Hue Country Side – Farm Life and Arts & Crafts
In the village, there is a quaint museum that depicts the farming life and in particular the rice harvest … Let’s say life wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy. After walking around the small museum, our guide, Peter, introduced us to a very kind woman (70+ years old) who was a sort of docent at the museum. She showed us how the rice was farmed, husked, and milled back in the day.
Lastly, we head back to the car to continue our journey. As we walk across a bridge over a small inlet of water, Peter points out that this bridge has been standing here since 1776.
Peter and his very patient driver, Mr. Binh, then took us on to another village to meet one of the last woodblock painters in the area. The artist, Mr. Tranh Dan Gian Lang Sing, makes his paintings using woodblocks he has carved.
The State pays Mr. Sing to continue his art, and in return, he takes time each week to work with students from grammar and secondary schools and from the university to train them in the art of woodblock painting.
After this brief tour of the countryside, we head into Hue proper…
Hue, Part Two – the City
Hue was the Imperial city of Vietnam from 1802 – 1945. You see the beauty of the people and the architecture all around. The Citadel was the Emperor’s home during this period and was fashioned after the Forbidden City in Beijing as was befitting. The Citadel is a must-see sight when you visit Vietnam
In the West what we call the Vietnam War is what the Vietnamese call the American War. During the war, US Troops were ordered not to bomb or shell the city, for fear of destroying the historic structures. However, as casualties mounted, particular during the Tet Offensive, these restrictions were lifted.
The fighting caused substantial damage to the city, nearly destroying the Citadel. Because of the damage caused by the war, much of the Citadel is still under restoration. Even in the current state of repair, you can spend hours wandering through the grounds and buildings.
Next, we head over the south side of the Perfume River to tour the Thien Mu Pagoda. Building for this temple started as far back as 1601. The pagoda’s grounds are vast, with the many buildings and gardens lovingly maintained by the resident monks.
There is so much to see in each city and province in Vietnam. As we finished our tour of Thien Mu, we ta5e a slow boat up the Perfume River to see the City of Hue from the water.
Mr. Binh meets us with the car on the other side of the river, and we head back to the ship. We try to pack as much into a day in port as possible; having a great guide and driver makes it possible.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam
The Last stop as we visit Vietnam this trip is Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon. Here in the south, the locals seem to prefer still to call the city Saigon.
Again, we have a guide, Diem Kieu, from Charming Tourism and a driver who picks us up at the port. The drive into Saigon is nearly two hours long. As we drive, Diem explains how the City has grown.
Saigon is a crazy, bustling, frenetic place. Everything is for sale here …and very fresh… even the brains. We ask to tour a local food market and are soon arrive at one of the local open-air markets with our guide.
After walking through the market for about an hour, we arrive at a Buddhist temple. The main reason for the stop at the temple is for a chance to see the “Happy Room” a nice euphemism for a western-style bathroom.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) – Pedicab Ride
Once done in the “Happy Room,” we cross to a side-street where each of us gets our own fancy pedicab for a whirlwind bicycle tour of the old town. You may recall I mentioned the traffic way back on our stop in Halong Bay. Traffic is even crazier in the center of Saigon, if you can imagine.
Motorbikes are the most popular form of transit, providing an inexpensive and agile way to get around. The loads the locals can balance on their bikes are insane. When you visit Vietnam, these are among the most common sights on the road.
As we woosh around the streets with nothing more than the wind to protect us, our guide and her fearless friend head out on a motorbike to get as many photos of us as possible during the crazy parade.
Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, we are pretty familiar with Asian food, and I love Vietnamese. So I am happy when we finally make a stop for lunch in a local shop in the downtown area.
Touring Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
The rest of the afternoon is spent tooling around the city, looking at the old and new architecture. We stop at the Saigon Central Post Office, a beautiful building that is a classic example of the colonization of Vietnam. The post office, constructed between 1886 – 1891, has elements for Gothic, Renaissance, and French colonial design.
One of the notable buildings we see is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon constructed in the late 1800s when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The architect’s, Jules Bourard, plan for the church was to mirror the Famous Notre-Dame de Paris form in the French Gothic and Romanesque style.
Both the Basilica and the Post Office are great examples of French influence on that time’s buildings, so evident when you visit Vietnam.
The US Embassy* (now the US Consulate-General as the formal US Embassy is in Hanoi), located just a couple of short blocks away from these iconic buildings, has a storied history. Most Americans remember this site from the many newscasts in the spring of 1975 as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
Starting on April 28, 1975, and continuing for more than 48 hours, there were near continuous helicopter evacuations of American citizens (978) and South Vietnamese and third-country nationals (1,120) from the compound. In all, more than 682 sorties were flown throughout the area during this time.
Visit Vietnam Wrap-Up
This quick tour of Vietnam was a good introduction to the country thanks in no small part the assistance and knowledge the local guides who we had the pleasure to meet in each city. Our guides give us a good overview of their city’s, and we have a good feel for the country and its people.
Hue and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) ‘s long drives gave us time to learn from our guides about their lives and families. When you visit Vietnam, you see a country full of young, eager, hardworking people who love their home and want to show it to the world.
* Information of the Fall of Saigon and the US Embassy, taken from Wikipedia