Exploring Authentic Hoi An, Vietnam

Japanese Covered Bridge

There are few pristine travel destinations left like Hoi An, Vietnam.

Brilliant architecture, perfect canals, clean coastline with immaculate sandy beaches and more history than you can shake a stick at make Hoi An, Vietnam, a gem of Southeast Asia.

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Hoi An, Vietnam

While modern cities like Ho Chi Minh City (and even more photos here) and Hanoi see a great leap forward in FDI, architecture and technology which is reshaping them to their very foundations, Vietnam’s ancient cities of Hue and Hoi An are still raising the flag so to speak of traditional Vietnamese culture and identity. Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a wonder of central Vietnam.

Hoi An, Vietnam
Crossing the Ho River into Hoi An from China Beach

Hoi An, Vietnam

And that’s just the view on the way in to Hoi An! The drive from Danang to Hoi An is a roughly 30-kilometer drive along the quiet and peaceful coastline. Spanning the length of My Khe Beach, the infamous stretch of sand used to be referred to as “China Beach” by American GI’s during the Vietnam War. It’s quite a weird thing, passing Danang, cruising past the Marble Mountains and heading inland towards Hoi An and imaging how different a sight this place must have been only 30-some years ago.

Hoi An, Vietnam
The famous Chinese Lanterns of Hoi An
Hoi An, Vietnam
French Colonial Architecture lines the Ancient Town of Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam

The Iconic Japanese Covered Bridge of Hoi An

Hoi An has long been an international city and not to get too bogged down in history, but the Japanese community in town wanted to link up with the Chinese quarter therefore they began bridge-building over the natural canals. The first bridge built here was in the 1590s with updates and upkeep taking place frequently since then. Keeping faithful to the original Japanese design, during the French Indochina days they flattened out the roadway for cars and the bridge, especially its arched shape, was completely restored in 1986. It is now an icon of the city.

Hoi An, Vietnam
To make a local smile, ask in Vietnamese for the “Cau Nhat Ban”
Hoi An, Vietnam
“Lai Vien Kieu” = “A bridge for passengers by from afar”

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
The bridge’s “Pagoda” section, the Cau Chua Pagoda

Hoi An, Vietnam

The Streets and Local Vibe

After the Japanese Bridge, the streets are lined with cafes, restaurants, local shops and handmade goods stores. Primarily a tourist city, Chinese lanterns line the city streets and are available for purchase for tourists who want a trademark souvenir.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
Handcrafted goods line the alleyways

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
Expert craftsmanship, done the old way

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
The Cau An Hoi Bridge over the Thu Bon River

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
Riverboats are always available for cruises up and down the canals

Hoi An, Vietnam

 

The Central Market

The busy little Central Market  is essentially a large food hall surrounded by small shops, tailors and restaurants. If you’re looking to save a bit of Dong vs. the rest of the city’s tourist spots, this is the place to go in the Ancient Town for a good local meal for a fair price. I recommend the Cau Lau or the Mi Quang, but my favorite is the fried beef with noodles.

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam
Always busy and seemingly always open (officially at 6:30am)!

Keep checking the site for more on Hoi An, as the Temples and Assembly Halls are up next… and you don’t want to miss them!

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Chillin in Ho Chi Minh City – Part One

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s former capital and one of the funnest cities in Southeast Asia! 

A backpacker’s paradise, Ho Chi Minh City has everything a traveler is looking for – interesting history, amazing nightlife, vibrant culture, good shopping and of course, it’s cheap!

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For part two of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

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Ho Chi Minh City
The French-inspired Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon. Vietnam’s most-populous city of several names (most use both, I did/still do)  is quickly shifting towards the future, however its vibrant culture and old-school attitude is still felt by its residents and travelers alike. I’ve touched on the Vietnam War bit of the coastal country’s troubled history in my post about the fear-inducing Cu Chi Tunnels, so I’ll focus more on the city itself and what there is to do around town in this post and the next in a two-part series.

Ho Chi Minh City
Bui Vien Street, a backpackers’ paradise
Ho Chi Minh City
Chances are, your hostel will located down one of these many packed corridors in Ho Chi Minh City

For starters, if you arrive in town from neighboring Cambodia (like most backpackers) or via the airport, you’ll need to make your way towards Bui Vien Street/Pham Ngu Lao Street. The central hub of all hostels, trips, bars, restaurants (and amazing street food) and things-to-do-in-town, Bui Vien is the place to get sorted. I stayed at the Galaxy Hotel & Capsule for around $10 USD/night which is pretty standard in Saigon. Most hostels call themselves hotels since they offer single private rooms (as basic as you can imagine, but private nonetheless) in addition to the regular dorm-style accommodations most opt for due to cheapness.

Ho Chi Minh City
Like ebony and ivory, Vietnam is a mix of communism and capitalism in perfect harmony

As readers of this blog are certainly aware by now, my favorite thing to do once I arrive in a new city is to scope out the surroundings by taking a nice long walk, camera in hand. The strangeness of Vietnam’s communism-meets-capitalism is quick stark and offers such a weird contrast for the recent arrival. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the famous two-tailed mermaid, a symbol of American luxury coffee literally located next to sickle and hammer flag. Bui Vien is the place where the far east meets west.

Ho Chi Minh City
A pair of western gals stroll in front of Vietnam’s famous propaganda

I could write volumes on the oddness of seeing American consumerism occupying the same stretch of street as Vietnam’s staunch political belief systems. One last example – Popeye’s Fried Chicken located 3 minutes walking from the Independence Palace. But I digress… and will leave it for the next post. After taking in the local area I grabbed some shuteye for the next day. I planned on hitting up some local parks and sights and then meeting a colleague of mine for drinks a bit later that night. One of the advantages of living and working in Yangon, Myanmar, is that you make connections all around Southeast Asia and with a good nights’ sleep I wanted to make the most of the famous Vietnamese nightlife… but first, the Tao Dan Park.

Ho Chi Minh City
The sidewalks of Saigon have a lot to say for proper city planning. Loving that shade.

The Tao Dan Park is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The park is made up of old stupas, a Buddhist Temple or two and plenty of leisure space for children to run around and adults to partake in some strange Tai Chi – like dance moves. The large park also has artwork on display and is incredibly well kept for a big city spot of nature.

Ho Chi Minh City
A tribute to the famous Viet Cong dual-way sandal

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City
Stone carvings are among the artwork on display at the park

Ho Chi Minh City

The last place I’ll cover in this post is the absolutely-brilliant Notre Dame Basilica Cathedral Saigon. Designed by the French architect Jules Bourard and opened in 1880 (1880!) the massive church dominates the downtown landscape and maintains its presence amongst the modern buildings of the “new Saigon.”

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception

Ho Chi Minh City
Our Lady and the Cathedral

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

I’m gonna do something a little bit different in describing the Basilica – just list facts… and what facts are these:

  1. All the building materials were imported from France. The bricks outside the cathedral are from Toulouse and have retained their red color without the use of coated conrete.
  2. There are 56 glass squares supplied by the Lorin firm of Chartres province in France.
  3. The cathedral foundation was designed to bear ten times the weight of the cathedral itself.
  4. Tiles have been carved with the words Guichard Carvin, Marseille St André France (perhaps stating the locality where the tiles were produced). Some tiles are carved with the words “Wang-Tai Saigon”. Many tiles have since been made in Ho Chi Minh City to replace the tiles that were damaged by the war.
  5. In October 2005, it was claimed that the Virgin Mary statue out front started to “shed tears.” This was never confirmed by the Catholic Church yet it still drew crowds the world over.
  6. In 1960, Pope John XXIII erected Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and assigned archbishops to Hanoi, Huế and Saigon. The cathedral was titled Saigon Chief Cathedral. In 1962, Pope John XXIII anointed the Saigon Chief Cathedral, and conferred it the status of a basilica. From this time, this cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.

Ho Chi Minh City

That’s your lot for now, I’ll be back soon with Part 2  of Ho Chi Minh City. Cheers!

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For part two of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here

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Wild Motorbike Ride to the Peak of Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

The Son Tra Peninsula in Da Nang is one of the most picturesque places I’ve had the chance to travel to. Taking a motorbike up to the top of Monkey Mountain is a must for travelers passing through central Vietnam. 

Monkey Mountain on the Son Tra Peninsula rises 850 meters (about 3,000 feet) above the city of Da Nang and makes for a perfect day trip for any adventurer (or photographer!) and has some of the best views in the entire country.

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Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Located almost halfway between the former Vietnamese capital of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the current capital of Hanoi, Danang is one of the gems of Vietnam’s central coastline and has so much to offer a traveler. From the glorious Buddhist pilgrimage sites of the Marble Mountains to the towering Lady Buddha located a third of the way up the Monkey Mountain on Son Tra Peninsula, you really need to stop by this place for a few days at minimum to catch a glimpse of real Vietnamese life. As I’ve just published a blog post on the Lady Buddha I’ll leave that for this post on the motorbike drive up to the peak of the Monkey Mountain.

Da Nang Lady Buddha
The fishing village at the bottom of Monkey Mountain with the Lady Buddha of Danang in the distance
Da Nang Lady Buddha
The bay of Danang and city in the distance, from the circular road leading up the mountain

The Son Tra Peninsula still largely covered with dense, lush rainforest.  Though I didn’t spot any, the mountain gets its “Monkey”moniker from the rare Red Shanked Doucs monkeys that inhabit the area. The narrow jungle roads can be a bit hairy by motorbike as taxis, tuk tuks and open-air trucks can be seen ferrying up visitors to and from the peak. I only came across a few but the one-lane roads make it easy to imagine having to take it a bit slow just to play it safe. Don’t go too slow, some of the roads are pretty steep and you won’t be able to get your bike up it!

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
Some amazing coves and views all around the peninsula. Most of the beaches are empty and can be taken advantage of by those who want some peace and quiet
Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
Clouds starting to form at the peak

I made it a point to leave early in the morning to try and beat the afternoon clouds that usually settle upon the mountain this time of year… however as luck would have it about two-thirds up the clouds started to form around the peak. Back on the bike and with the GoPro attached to my wrist, it was full speed ahead along the increasingly narrow, steep roads to the top.

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
Eek! That was close

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

By the time I reached the peak I was driving in near white-out conditions. From the photo above, you can see how thick the clouds set upon the last stretch of road near the top. The following two pics are almost completely untouched so you can get a real feel for just how cloudy the peak was. What is most peculiar is that just a couple meters below the cloud line, perfect weather mean incredible photos… it was just the top bit that had zero visibility. Check out the pictures below of the chess grandmaster waiting for you at the top and following that some excellent shots of Danang City from just below the cloud line.

I won!

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
A 4-minute drive from the peak broke through the clouds and gave way to some of the most incredible views
Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
STOKED!

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam
The Danang Dragon Bridge crossing the river in Danang, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

From the lookout I continue my descent through the winding roads of the Monkey Mountain. An observatory sits atop a second peak and unfortunately I was unable to get up there. But the view from my stop off was unbelievable. Islands almost untouched by man and some of the thickest jungle in the entire region blanket this little bit of paradise.

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Welp, there you have it… my motorbike trip through the excellent and pristine Monkey Mountain of the Son Tra Peninsula. Keep an eye out for my next post of the Danang Dragon Bridge, a long stretch of road over the river in the form of a traditional Vietnamese dragon… and it shoots fire at night!

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Biking to the Da Nang Lady Buddha of Son Tra, Vietnam

Da Nang Lady Buddha

The Da Nang Lady Buddha is missing from most guidebooks and travel sites but it is a must-see of central Vietnam. 

Da Nang is best known for its Marble Mountains, close proximity to the Hoi Van Pass, Hoi An and Hue. The Da Nang Lady Buddha isn’t at the top of the list for most travelers but really should be, standing at 67m tall and rivaling the Statue of Liberty in scale.

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Da Nang Lady Buddha
The Lady Buddha of Danang from the fishing village across the bay

The Linh Ung Pagoda of Son Tra Peninsula in Da Nang (Danang), Vietnam, is home to a massive Buddha statue which looks over the bay and China Beach (known locally as My Khe Beach).  The beautiful 67m (220 ft) is the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam and is only 14km from the Da Nang city center making it a quick drive along the coast and past the fishing village. Perhaps what is most impressive about the Da Nang Lady Buddha is how it is visible from almost the entire city and as well has a lotus diameter of 35m, equivalent to a 30-story building! The official website of the Lady Buddha reads that “facing the sea, the kind eyes looking down, a hand exorcizes (ed) while the other hand is holding a bottle of holy water like sprinkling the peace to the offshore fishermen.”

Da Nang Lady Buddha

In Danang, you can rent a motorbike for around 100,000 dong (about $5 USD) and the drive up the coast to the Son Tra Mountain aka Monkey Mountain takes hardly any time at all. The traffic in this area is quite light while the infrastructure of this area is top class. The only thing a traveler needs to look out for is tight turns around the corners going up the mountain. Vietnamese drivers are notoriously quick and carefree so of course you’ll have to take that into account. The views from the Lady Buddha are brilliant and you’ll want to stop off several times on your trip to grab a few photos. I sure did!

Da Nang Lady Buddha
Halfway up to the Da Nang Lady Buddha!
Da Nang Lady Buddha
Mountainous islands and brilliant turquoise blue seas as far as the eye can see

Definitely don’t get distracted while driving up! The Da Nang Lady Buddha is located about halfway up the mountain and a large-scale parking lot is available at the entrance to store your bike. I forget the exact parking fee but it is nominal to say the least. If riding motorbikes is a bit too hairy for you, tuk tuks and open-air trucks regularly ferry visitors up the mountain. Most will take you up to the peak of the Son Tra Mountain after visiting the Lady Buddha, another sight you won’t want to miss. My next post will cover the peak of the mountain.

Da Nang Lady Buddha
The steps leading up the Linh Ung Pagoda from the parking lot
Da Nang Lady Buddha
The entrance… but first turn around quick!
Da Nang Lady Buddha
Worth it!

Da Nang Lady Buddha

Linh Ung Pagoda

The Da Nang Lady Buddha is part of the greater Linh Ung Pagoda, a complex with many different temples and Buddha statues to take in.  On a hot day (it was way past 40C when I arrived, around 100F) there is plenty of shade to take advantage of. As a quick bit of history (and Vietnamese myth), the people of Son Tra “recalled that, at the time of Minh Mang King (Nguyen Dynasty, XIX century), there was a Buddha statue from nowhere to drift on the sandbank here. Believing that was an auspicious sign, people here established a shrine for worship… the sandbank where the Buddha statue drifted was then named Bai But (i.e. Buddha land on earth) also was where Ling Ung pagoda erected today,” – LadyBuddha.org. The modern complex you can visit today took six years to complete, from June 2004 to July 30th, 2010. The Linh Ung Bai But Pagoda is considered the “meeting place of heaven and earth.”

Da Nang Lady Buddha
The main temple of Linh Ung Bai But with the traditional Vietnamese architecture of a dragon roof
Da Nang Lady Buddha
Worshippers praying to the Sakyamuni Buddha Statue
Da Nang Lady Buddha
The Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva ‘guarding’ the Buddhist worshippers

Da Nang Lady Buddha

Da Nang Lady Buddha
Rubbing the Buddha belly for good luck
Da Nang Lady Buddha
18 stone Arhat statues line the Linh Ung Pagoda courtyard. Each was carved up by the artist Nguyen Viet Minh (head of the Non Nuoc craft village) with monolithic white stone materials brought from Thanh Hoa
Da Nang Lady Buddha
The view from the main temple. Beat this: Danang City in the background, a pristine ocean, the entrance and courtyard and, of course, the Lady Buddha

Da Nang Lady Buddha

Da Nang Lady Buddha

I hope you guys enjoyed the Da Nang Lady Buddha and Linh Ung Pagoda! I’ll be back with the drive up the Son Tra Peninsula and peak soon, don’t miss it!

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A Rainy Day in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Few places in the world are as renowned for its incredible natural formations like the karst limestone mountains of Halong Bay, Vietnam

The sheer size, scope and beauty of the natural rock formations of Halong Bay, Vietnam, first captured my imagination several years ago when I caught a glimpse  of them on a television program on the National Geographic Channel. Seeing is believing and it is truly one of the rare places on Planet Earth that you really do need to see to believe. Unfortunately my trip included a massive monsoon rainstorm that caught up with me on the boat ride out to explore the area.

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[su_youtube_advanced url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zOhh2NagQg” theme=”light”]

From the start, we arrived to the town of Halong Bay after a couple days in Hanoi (with beautiful blue skies nonetheless) and the change of scenery was seriously welcome. A crowded and bustling (though brilliant… more on that in a later post) city gave way to striking countryside, small villages and excellent rural expanses that span as far as the eye can see. I was traveling with three mates, one from Israel and doing a semester abroad in Hong Kong, plus two of his classmates, one German and one from Singapore. After some hunting around for the best price, we ended up in a private van for about $15 each.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Boats with cabins below and a sundeck above are aplenty at Halong Bay, offering daily cruises

After settling into the hostel and looking for the best price for day cruises, we found most prices to range from $30 USD to $50 USD and up. We booked for $30 from the Halong Party Hostel and pickup began at 6:00 AM. Unfortunately our perfect blue skies gave way to the last gasps of the Southeast Asian monsoon and muggy weather turned out to be the theme of the day. Luckily I was armed with my handy GoPro camera and its waterproof case turned out to be a lifesaver. So in advance, my apologies for the clarity of some of these images as I was constantly wiping away raindrops from blurring my shots of the area.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
For reference, the thousands of islands of Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Upon grabbing our boat and setting sail, our first glimpse of the thousands of islands that dot the Halong Bay landscape came into view and despite all the rain, the sheer size and immensity of the surroundings really blow you away. Our first stop was a cave amongst the islands for which I was able to break out the Canon and take some remarkable images of the giant stalactite and stalagmite formations of the cave.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, Vietnam

The cave itself was an eerie experience though for me, a bit far from enjoyable. Many tourists are crammed into the caverns not only making the art of photography difficult but making it hard to connect with the site itself and feel more like a theme park ride than an adventure out into the islands. This is the tradeoff in Halong Bay, Vietnam = the most unique and impressive sights combined with a glut of tourists which make it hard to take it all in. But I digress… after we exited the cave, the weather had broken a bit and it was back into the boat and on to the next location, taking out kayaks into the Bay. A word of advice – make sure you negotiate the kayak rental into the price of the trip itself. We had it thrown in as part of our package and avoided having to pay an extra fee for the rental. But as we arrived, the weather acted up again but it didn’t stop us from going hard into the water.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
The cave behind us led to…
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The most gorgeous lagoon I’ve ever seen, rain and all

Kayak rental can cost anywhere from $5 to $50 USD depending on who you rent from. Don’t get scammed but definitely take the kayaks. Even in the worst weather it is an adventure well worth the hassle. With the GoPro affixed to my head attachment, we set out into the bay and underneath a cave which led to the lagoon of my dreams. We were the only ones in there and it was a welcome change from being surrounded by tourists. This was by far my favorite moment of the trip.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

The rain continued to press on and by this time we were all quite miserable, our crew along with the entire boat. I attempted to dry off but it was ultimately to no avail. A short boat ride around the islands followed by another stop at a small island concluded our epic trip to the once-of-a-kind Halong Bay. I’ll leave ya’ll with some parting shots (For all the high-resolution photos from Halong Bay, Vietnam: Click Hereand stay tuned for more from Vietnam!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Sun setting after a long cruise on the epic Halong Bay, Vietnam

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