For all the high-resolution photos from Hoi An, Vietnam: Click Here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For all the high-resolution photos from Hanoi, Vietnam: Click Here
Hanoi! The capital city of Vietnam is one of the most interesting places to visit in the country from a historical perspective – I mean there is the infamous Hanoi Hilton Prison, the Soviet-Communist inspiration of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and of course, the French colonial architecture of the Old Town. But there is also massive economic progress being made as the communist ruling government embraces progress via foreign investment and capitalist principles.
For most visitors to Hanoi, the first stop is usually the Hoan Kiem Lake & Bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple. Open from dawn till dusk, the ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’ is Hanoi’s most-visited temple and sits on a small island in the northern part the lake. The scarlet bridge is constructed in classical Vietnamese style and the temple itself is dedicated to a general who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, the patron saint of physicians and a famous Vietnamese scholar. It’s free to enter which is great because I could spend that money on overpriced drinks that night at a rooftop bar overlooking the awesome cityscape of Hanoi. Check out the quick video below!
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a sight to behold and entering the mausoleum is an unforgettable experience. Styled after Vladimir Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, Russia, the Vietnamese version features a traditional sloping roof and imposing gray granite which looms over the Ba Dinh Square below. Strict rules upon entrance mean giving up your phones, cameras and electronic devices. The dress code is enforced at all times, meaning no shorts or skirts. Visitors enter in rows of two-by-two and the honor guard you pass on the way in is dressed in all white, pristine makeup and are meant to be intimidating. Upon entrance, silence is mandatory, no hands in pockets (a soldier actually grabbed my arm and put it by my side), no smoking, eating, drinking, photography or video is allowed. The body of Ho Chi Minh is on display in a very cool and air-conditioned central chamber and you are meant to walking rather quickly in a U-shape around the embalmed body.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum has open hours usually from: Tuesday-Thursday 07:30 – 10:30; Saturday & Sunday 07:30 – 11:00. I recommend checking in with your hostel or hotel staff to the open hours on that day as schedule changes quite often and sometimes it is closed for maintenance. After the mausoleum we headed next door to check out the Ho Chi Minh Museum for a bit of history before heading on to the Hanoi Hilton Prison.
The Infamous Hanoi Hilton Prison
I’ve written before about how “History is written by the victors” using the famous Winston Churchill quote when discussing Vietnam and modern attitudes towards the War with America. In fairness I try to present both sides because, honestly, both sides’ arguments had merit and both sides’ actions were at times atrocious and inexcusable. The example I commonly use is this: dropping napalm (USA) vs. torturing and killing prisoners (Vietnamese). And that’s all I’ll touch on that.
For a short history, the Hoa Lo Prison was originally built by the French during the Indochina Colonial days and was used mostly for incarcerating political prisoners. Known then as the Maison Centrale (Central House), the French’s cruelty towards those agitating for independence was notorious and well documented. Torture and execution were frequent occurrences and a guillotine still exists and is on display today at the museum. Such was the horror under the French that the locals dubbed the prison Hoa Lo, the fiery furnace or hell hole.
Most of the history on display at the Hoa Lo Prison concerns the inhumane treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners under French rule and praises the treatment given to the Americans under Vietnamese rule. When the French departed, the North Vietnamese assumed control of the prison and used it to hold American POWs during the Vietnam War. Known infamously as the Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners in an ironic twist, the Vietnamese actually grew to “resent” the nickname as it went against the propaganda of how “humane” they treated the American prisoners. Again, a point of contention that both sides would dispute greatly but as always, I present both sides.
From the beginning, U.S. POWs endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The “Hanoi Hilton” moniker was given sarcastically in a reference to the famous Hilton Hotel chain. Kids nowadays may be more familiar with the heiress to the Hilton fortune, Paris Hilton. Most of the POWs who were held at the prison were American pilots who were shot down during bombing raids. Straight from Wiki, “Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement.” Regarding treatment at Hỏa Lò and other prisons, Communists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Hanoi, Vietnam, has so much to see and do and I hope this post helped convince you to make the trip!
For all the high-resolution photos from Hanoi, Vietnam: Click Here
For part two of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here
For all the high-resolution photos from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Click Here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I’m gonna do something a little bit different in describing the Basilica – just list facts… and what facts are these:
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.
There are 56 glass squares supplied by the Lorin firm of Chartres province in France.
The cathedral foundation was designed to bear ten times the weight of the cathedral itself.
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.
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.
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.
For all the high-resolution photos from the Da Nang Dragon Bridge: Click Here
“Cau Rong Da Nang!” That was the first thing I heard upon arriving via motorbike in Danang, a growing tourist destination in central Vietnam. Well, a “growing tourist destination” in theory at least as the Southeast Asian country is investing heavily in the beautiful yet-still-quaint city. Its location between the Hoi Van Pass of Top Gear fame in the north, the gorgeous ancient town of Hoi An along with the Marble Mountains to the south, the Son Tra Peninsula located slightly east and the Ba Na Hills to the west make it a prime vacation spot for Buddhist pilgrims and vacationers both local and foreign. But I digress… let’s talk about the fire-breathing Dragon Bridge!
Awesome, right? The Cau Rong – meaning Dragon Bridge – is ironically-measured at 666-meters long (about 2,185 ft) and connects the Da Nang International Airport to the city of Da Nang. The 1.5 trillion Vietnamese Dong ($88 million USD) project was officially completed in 2013 and is a 6-lane pass going both ways over the mighty Han River. As for seeing the fire show, the Da Nang Dragon Bridge lights up from sunset on Saturday and Sunday nights at 9:00pm. It is best to get there a bit early as the bridge is massively popular with the locals, however the bridge itself shuts down to traffic so it isn’t so hard to find a good view.
As you can tell, I was a bit too close and the heat emitted from the fire itself is no joke! The police presence is apparent but they don’t do that much aside from keeping crowds near the sides of the bridge and stopping traffic… so you can get pretty close. After the show I recommend walking the span of the Da Nang Dragon Bridge to take in all the sights of the city after dark. There is a pair of bridges, LED lights galore and ships moving up and down the river while the lights of restaurants and bars fill the banks of the Han River.
Alright, that’s your lot for today. Back soon with another post from Central Vietnam!
The city of Da Nang in central Vietnam has so much to offer travelers – whether that be backpackers, photographers or regular run-of-the-mill travelers. An afternoon drive along the beach brought me to the Vu Lan Bao Hieu – Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple and I just had to snap some pics.
Located along the beach just before the magnificent Son Tra Peninsula, the Chua Buu Dai Son is a colorful reminder to always explore everywhere you go!
For all the high-resolution photos from the Vu Lan Bao Hieu – Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple: Click Here
Many of Vietnam’s incredible sites have been well documented thanks to the enormous numbers of travelers who have ventured to this part of the world. Danang’s Dragon Bridge, Son Tra Peninsula (not too mention the glorious Lady Buddha) and the further Hoi An and Hoi Van Pass of Top Gear fame, have all been written about at length. What has gotten lost in all this clamour are the less-traveled yet important heritage sites such as local pagodas and temples. The Vu Lan Bao Hieu – Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple is a perfect example of the latter, as Vietnamese culture oozes through every part of this fantastically colorful pagoda and surrounding compound.
Like most places I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, there is a serious dearth of information on the Chua Buu Dai Son Temple. I could wax poetic about the colors though I feel I’ve covered that already! From my visit and perusing the entire compound, I can report that there are many stone statues each with its own unique flair in addition to well maintained albeit smaller temples and the Vietnamese traditional-style architecture, with Chinese infusion, is beyond stunning.
So that’s your lot for now. It was a brilliant day of blue skies and I hope you enjoyed the photos from the Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple. I’ll be back with more from brilliant Da Nang, Vietnam – my favorite city in the country! Here are some more photos for a lasting impression.
The Marble Mountains of DaNang jut out along the flat and pristine Vietnamese coastline and give central Vietnam its spiritual character.
The Marble Mountains, Vietnam, are a main attraction for tourists from all over the world, including devout Buddhists who wish to find their inner peace within the grottoes of the intricate cave systems.
For all the high-resolution photos from the Marble Mountains, Vietnam: Click Here
The Marble Mountains of Danang, Vietnam, are known locally as the “five elements mountains (Ngu Hanh Son)” and upon first glance it’s easy to see why. The karst limestone mountains loom in the distance from the city and a 20-minute motorbike ride south from the city center takes you right into the heart of the pristine mountains. Made out of the same rock as the well-known tourist destination of Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam, you get all the beauty but without the mass amounts of tourists. I’ve been told this is depending on the season, however I was there atthe beginning of the dry season and I had no issues with a mass influx of tourists whatsoever.
First things first – how can you travel to the Marble Mountains on a budget – easy – hostels in Danang are easily bookable for about $5-10 USD. Motorbikes are available for daily rental for around 100,000 Vietnamese Dong/Day (that’s less than $5 USD)! If you want to travel more upscale, there are plenty of resorts around Danang all the way south towards the tourist hub of Hoi An. I stayed at the Glocal Beachside Hostel and “paid extra” for a private two-bedroom room, basically just for the private amenities for roughly $12 USD. Shared room and bathroom options are available for cheaper. After renting a motorbike, I made the 20 minute or so journey along the coastal highway south to the Marble Mountains and was met along the way by a woman wanting to show me her statue shop and offering me free parking. I declined as there is already free parking at the site for motorbikes plus what is a backpacker gonna do with a massive Buddha statue?
Unfortunately once I arrived, there was a power outage at the “Cave to Buddhist Hell” in Mt Thuy and it was closed down with entrance forbidden. Kind of ominous really, but inconvenient mostly. I made a return trip just for this cave system on my next trip south to Hoi An so I ended up being able to see it after all. The cave entrance is much larger than the rest and inside is pitch black save for the artificial lighting which illuminates the way.
Thumbnails: Just your average stirring boiling souls alive in soup, toture and being eaten by snakes.
All is not lost in the eternal damnation sense, however, as the cave has a very narrow walkway up through a skylight to the top of the mountain, named the “Gate of Heaven.” If there is a hint of rain or the steps are wet, climb at your own peril as the small steps don’t offer much room for footing. I climbed up to the top amid a bit of foot traffic and the view was definitely worth the hassle.
Several Buddhist sanctuaries can also be found within the mountains, making this a famous tourist destination for pilgrims. As a bit of history, there was a US military base in the area during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the “War of American Aggression”) and history buffs may be more familiar with the name “China Beach.” To protect the base, the US dropped copious amounts of napalm in the area and its devasting effects can still be seen today in destruction of the local area and birth defects among the local population where the deadly chemicals infiltrated the water stream. But I digress… Outside of Mt. Thuy, there are a number of grottoes, including Huyen Khong and Tang Chon, and many Hindu and Buddhist sanctuaries. The pagoda Tam Thai was built in 1825 by Tu Tam and Linh Ung along with the tower of Pho Dong. The sanctuaries feature statuary and relief depictions of religious scenes carved out of local marble.
All in all, the Marble Mountains are a fantastic day trip for travelers in central Vietnam. Make sure to check out the surrounding village and nearby An Loc Temple while in the area for some cool views and fun adventure. I’ll do a photo post here soon for those who just want to see some cool shots from the area.
Alright folks, that’s your lot for today. As always, for all the high-resolution photos from the Marble Mountains, Vietnam: Click Here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Here) and stay tuned for more from Vietnam!