Capturing the Corpses, Lakes & Prisons of Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Gorgeous lakes, Communist shrines, French-inspired colonial architecture and a sprawling modern city make Hanoi, Vietnam, a must-see city in Southeast Asia

From the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Hanoi Hilton to the brand-new buildings of downtown Hanoi, Vietnam, the capital is alive with economic progress while maintaining strong ties to its roots.

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Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Hanoi, Vietnam
The famous Hoan Kiem Lake & Bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple

Hanoi, Vietnam

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!

Hanoi, Vietnam

[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WreNtO-kV1Q”]

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Vietnamese guards turn away all visitors in skirts and shorts
Hanoi, Vietnam
The expansive square is used often for military parades

 

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.

Hanoi, Vietnam
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located next to the mausoleum

 

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam
Artifacts and trinkets from all around Vietnam are on display at the museum
Hanoi, Vietnam
A wax figure of Ho Chi Minh at his desk

 

The Infamous Hanoi Hilton Prison

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam
The original Maison Centrale gatehouse of Hoa Lo 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.

 

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

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.

 

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

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.

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam
American Senator John McCain, in a rare photo, was one of the most high-profile prisoners held at the “Hanoi Hilton”

 

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 Hilton, Vietnam
One of the beds provided to captured American servicemen during the war

 

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam
The original guillotine used by the French at the Hoa Lo Prison

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam
The original New Year’s greeting from Ho Chi Minh on display at the prison

Hanoi, Vietnam, has so much to see and do and I hope this post helped convince you to make the trip!

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Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

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Riding Motorbikes in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Meeting a friend from Israel in Vietnam? Time to take the bikes out for a proper ride in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam, is a top travel destination which draws tourists from all over the world to its lush limestone mountains which jut violently from the sea. What few realize is that a whole adventure waits for you just outside the city of Ha Long Bay itself.

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Halong Bay, Vietnam
#squadgoals

Of all the travel destinations I’ve wanted to see most in Southeast Asia, Halong Bay, Vietnam, was top of my list. World renowned for its brilliant karst limestone mountains which seem to impossibly rise out from the surrounding bay, I was more than thrilled by the sites but less impressed by the weather. July is hit-or-miss in Asia in terms of weather as the monsoon can be unforgiving. I hit a one-for-one with one day wet and rainy and the next nice and cool albeit quite gray with clouds.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I’ve gone in-depth before on the Halong Bay itself however in this post I’ll focus on the surrounding area.  I met a good mate of mine from Israel who had been studying abroad in Hong Kong and he joined me along with two of his classmates, one from Germany and the other from Singapore. Taken aback by the sheer number of tourists descending upon the bay, we spent our second day renting motorbikes for 200,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $10 USD each for the day, quite expensive in Vietnam but expected for a tourist area like this) and by using Google Maps traveling throughout the countryside in a makeshift loop.

Our makeshift loop around Halong Bay
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Google Maps works in Vietnam… a welcome luxury after suffering through Myanmar with my basic Burmese
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The city of Halong Bay doesn’t have much to offer… but the countryside is another world altogether
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The powerful water buffalos of Southeast Asia are nothing to mess about with

The loop we chose was a large elliptical surrounding the outskirts of the city – past farmland, karst limestone mountains (the very same that dot the famous bay, just formed on land) and massive quarries which deplete the area of its natural beauty and resources, not too mention they brew up a nasty dust storm which makes biking through the area quite unpleasant. My sunglasses where even chipped by stones being kicked up by massive trucks moving huge piles of the stuff through the area.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Landscapes all day
Halong Bay, Vietnam
And the ‘progress’ which is destroying them
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The Bãi Cháy Bridge from the outer loop swampland

The landscapes surrounding the city are almost as stunning as the bay itself. Unfortunately they may not be around for long as economic exploitation of the region is shifting into high gear as Vietnam modernizes and raw materials are needed to build the massive buildings and structures already underway in places such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But I digress… as we explored the countryside it slowly morphed into swampland but we were still able to visit a temple sat back behind the paved road via a sketchy dirt path.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Metal wires help mold the trees outside the temple into unique shapes

Beautiful lakes, well-paved roads (for the most part), pristine surroundings… if it weren’t for the development of these large-scale factories the areas around Halong Bay would be perfect for trekking and exploration. I will say that in the rainy season it would be quite difficult but well worth it. Anyways our loop took us from the southwest corner of the city all the way past bridges and towards Hanoi, then back up and around the northern tip of Halong Bay region and back along the coast south into the city.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Trying to chart our progress… OK I got us lost….
Halong Bay, Vietnam
And made it to the coast! The monsoon was setting in but with some lucky lighting I got in a few shots

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Doesn’t this look like a “Lord of the Rings” set?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Well that more or less wraps up our motorbike ride around the Halong Bay, Vietnam. With clear weather we decided to take our bikes for a little drag race to see who’s was faster. Mine was an embarrassment and I came in last by a long shot. With that defeat in mind but a fun day overall, I highly recommend the outer loop of Halong Bay. Till next time in Hanoi.

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Halong Bay, Vietnam
Ready, Set, Go!
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Nuu… faster!

Photo Journal: Vietnam War Tour in HCMC

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975 but its legacy still cuts deep in the Far East.

“History is written by the victors” is the famous quote by Winston Churchill and that rings true more so in Vietnam than anywhere else. This photo journal will cover three important locations of the Vietnam War in relation to the former capital of the south, Saigon, known nowadays as Ho Chi Minh City.

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Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The immaculate lawn of the Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

The Independence Palace (Reunification Palace)

The Independence Palace of Ho Chi Minh City is a landmark of the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. A symbol of the fall and subsequent reunification of Vietnam when on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates. The palace is known nowadays as the Reunification Palace and is a museum to the southern fall and northern conquest. From rooftop party decks to underground bunkers, the site is immaculately kept and open to all visitors.

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
One of the many meeting rooms in the Independence Palace

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The President’s desk and office
Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The Presidential Library
Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The palace’s retro-style movie theater

 

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The original bar that was used during presidential shindigs – and next to it a mark of American-style capitalist influence
Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
A commandeered chopper next to two markers where the United States had dropped bombs during the Vietnam War

 

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The exit to the bunker from the rooftop for a quick escape
Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The first room of the underground command center used during the war

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
These tunnel labyrinths were used extensively during the war
Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
There are two levels to the underground tunnel system (that we know of!) Each is more claustrophobic than the last

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
One of the tunnel exits leads to the kitchen

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập
The backside of the Independence Palace – the vertical columns in the middle of the building are part of an open-air ventilation system

The Cu Chi Tunnels

I’ve covered the Cu Chi Tunnels extensively in a lengthy post here however for the sake of this post here are a few of my favorite shots from the thick-jungle of Southeast Asia. The tunnels, as I’m sure you’re aware of, were used by the Vietcong to ambush the American/Australian/British troops during the Vietnam War.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Jungle Warfare mixed with Guerilla Warfare… a terrifying combination
Cu Chi Tunnels
On hands and knees during the crawl through the “reinforced” and tourist-ized section of the tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
The real size of the cramped and dirt-carved tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Absolute relief and joy upon exited the cramped and tight tunnel system

The Vietnam War Remnants Museum

A last bit of Vietnam War-related travel in Ho Chi Minh City that is a must in order to understand the Northern Vietnamese perspective is at the War Remnants Museum. The museum features many pieces of hardware from the war including captured and left behind planes, helicopters, tanks, missile shells and casings, guns, gas masks and much much more, all presented in a manner completely (no pun intended) foreign to an American-educated lad such as myself.

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

 

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum
As democracy fought communism on Southeast Asian soil, the Cubans along with others lent their support to the Northern Vietnamese cause
War Remnants Museum
Captured guns and weapons, along with war stories from Vietnamese soldiers, line the walls of the museum. I’ve decided to cut the really graphic stuff from here but you can see them on Facebook via the link here
Ho Chi Minh City
Still one of the most powerful images from Vietnam and snapped with my phone nonetheless – the Communist sickle and hammer coupled next to the icon of American capitalism – Starbucks

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For all the high-resolution photos from the War Remnants Museum: Click Here

Hot Shots from Ho Chi Minh – Part Two

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and has huge buildings, awesome nightclubs and a vibrant culture.

Southeast Asia feels like a totally different world for western travelers, however Ho Chi Minh City is undergoing a renaissance complete with an influx of professionals from the west. Here are a couple of my favorite little spots around the city.

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

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Ho Chi Minh City
The architectural masterpiece that is the Bitexco Buildling

Ho Chi Minh City is the “city” symbol of Vietnam’s rising economy and new-found wealth. Vietnam’s largest city, formerly-known and sometimes still referred-to as Saigon, has huge skyscrapers and a bustling new industries. Perhaps chief among Ho Chi Minh City’s skyscrapers is the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower. The 262.5-meters tall building was once the tallest building in all of Vietnam upon its completion in 2010 until 2011. Designed by Venezuelan Carlos Zapata, the renowned design of the Bitexco Financial Tower shows a significant shift in the mentality of the communist-meets-capitalist new reality of the country with a well-known troubled past.

Ho Chi Minh City
Go to the Bitexco Skydeck. You won’t be disappointed.

Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City

As much as the Bitexco Tower is a symbol of Vietnam’s future, the Independance Palace of Ho Chi Minh City is a testament to the country’s past. The deep division sowed into the society between the Democratic and Communist factions before the Vietnam War (or War of American Aggression, depending on who you ask!) has repaired itself as best as probably possible… and of course no one would discount all the things that happened during the build-up, during and of course after the War, by both sides, and the scars the beautiful country still bears to this day.  Not to go too deep into the history of the conflict here (though I may go in-depth on this topic in the future) but for an insight into the war from a Viet Cong leadership perspective the Independence Palace is the place to go.

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập Independence Palace - Dinh Độc Lập

Another interesting piece of Vietnamese history is the famous Saigon Central Post Office. Located just caddy corner from the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica in central Ho Chi Minh City, the Post Office itself is still function today and was built during the French Indochina days in the late 19th century. Designed by Alfred Foulhoux with Gothic, Renaissance and French cues, it was finished in 1891.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City
“Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892” – “Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892”

All around Ho Chi Minh City are architectural and historical landmarks, such as the Cac Gio Le Catholic Church. Built in 1859, it is located just minutes walking from the Bui Vien backpackers’ area and worth a quick stroll on foot.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

I’ll wrap up this post with a quick word on Ho Chi Minh City nightlife. Basically, whatever you’re looking for is available in the city but one thing is for sure – you don’t have to bend rules to have a great time. Some of my colleagues took me to Glow Skybar and the view alone from the roof was worth it. Drinks can be a bit pricy at some of the trendier nightclubs however a simple search of “bars” on Google Maps will provide you with dozens of options all withing a few block radius. After months in Myanmar, a proper night out can be found in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City
As blurry as my eyesight!
Ho Chi Minh City
At. Your. Own. Risk.

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For part one 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

I hope you guys enjoyed the post and I’ll be back soon with some more from awesome Vietnam!

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!

For all my travel blog posts on 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
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!

For all my travel blog posts on 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

Claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels of Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi Tunnels

Have you ever been terrified on  your travels? I have, and the Cu Chi Tunnels are as frightening as they are incredible.

Vietnam’s (and neighboring Laos) natural beauty is engulfing; yet a legacy of war remains prominent when visiting the Pacific-rim country and the Cu Chi Tunnels are a prime example of that.

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Cu Chi Tunnels
A path cleared for the tour through the thick jungle of Southern Vietnam

Vietnam is one of those countries that, no matter how much culture, heritage or even change that has taken place, it still bears the scarred reputation as being the focal point of one of the worst theaters of war to have existed on Earth. Napalm, gasses of all kinds, bombs of all sizes and more all did terrible damage to a gorgeous country that is now rebounding in a big way. One of the main remnants of the war that is now a must-see tourist (or backpacker!) destination is the Cu Chi Tunnels of what was known then as Saigon but nowadays, Ho Chi Minh City.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tiny entrances and exits – this is why the Viet Cong was so deadly and effective

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located about an hour and a half outside the city, especially if you sign up for a bus tour near the Bui Vien/Pham Ngu Lao backpackers’ area like I did. Southeast Asia is known for the possible scam or two and our trip was no different as the bus conveniently stopped near a workshop to try and get travelers to purchase locally-made goods from “victims” of Agent Orange. I do recommend taking a bus from the city instead of trying to drive it via rented car (lots of traffic) or motorbike (quite dangerous roads) and I won’t spend too much time on this but as a travel blog with travel tips, I will say a few things to watch out for: firstly it’s great to always contribute to the local economy when visiting a much-poorer country like Vietnam, however with the inflated prices at the shop you could easily purchase similar goods for a fraction of the price in the city markets and with the prices listed, there is more “value” in this little market than at an entire Gucci or Versace store – no joke. So that’s one thing, another is that they book you for a half-day trip and spend an hour at a place like this wasting your precious travel time. So after 15 to 20 minutes I started rallying the bus and telling the guide that it was time to head out as no one was going to buy anything. Do this and your sorted. One last tip – never leave your bags or any valuables on the bus even if you pop off to grab a quick soda.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels
While the goods are handmade, those making it may or may not have been affected by chemical agents left over from the war

And now to the tunnels! The Cu Chi Tunnels were dug by the Communist Viet Cong forces and at one time spanned “tens of thousands of miles.” Whether or not that number is entirely accurate they do span for miles and miles.  In terms of engineering, they really are a marvel – dug mostly by hoe in the post-monsoon rainy season, the tunnels have air vents, booby traps, living quarters, hospitals and more! The small, narrow tunnels were easier for the smaller Vietnamese to navigate vs. the larger American, British and Australian forces, however life was incredibly difficult underground and living in these tunnels meant dealing with rampant malaria and disease, poisonous centipedes and scorpions, even vermin and rodents infested the cramped quarters.  They were highly effective nonetheless and were the launching point of the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The 90-meter long stretch of tunnel was made larger, wider and reinforced for tourists
Cu Chi Tunnels
The original tunnel is truly frightening
Cu Chi Tunnels
Successfully made it through! Had to suck in the gut, obviously

After a guide explains to you the basic history, runs you through some of the terrifying booby traps and tactics used by the Viet Cong vs. the foreign forces, brave visitors can try their hand at crawling through an enlarged version of the tunnels. The 90-meter long stretch has several exits for the claustrophobic and larger travelers as they get progressively smaller towards the end. About halfway through I seriously reconsidered why I thought this was a good idea. I think the look on my face above shows how absolutely thrilled I was to get out of there. Honestly looking up through the exit sent chills down my spine. What if I don’t fit through? I’m getting clammy thinking about it, but check out my size 10.5’s (American, like 45? in European) next to the exit below.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Too small…
Cu Chi Tunnels
… and way too tight!

A half-day trip is all you need at the Cu Chi Tunnels although I do recommend  reading up on the history of the place beforehand. At the conclusion of the tour we stopped by the gun range where you can shoot old rifles and even some Jeep-mounted machine guns. The prices are a bit steep and it’ll set you back around $20 USD to get down onto the field. I passed as having grown up around veterans who have had to actually shoot guns in Vietnam for real, it is thankfully something I’ve never had to do and really not a vibe I want to get in to. But if you have some extra dough it does go back into keeping the grounds meticulous and they really are.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The path towards the shooting range at Cu Chi
Cu Chi Tunnels
Booby traps made the tunnels impassible for invading soldiers

As you can see, the photos here are less quality than my normal pics as I was shooting entirely from the GoPro on a rainy day. I’ll be back with more from Vietnam soon!

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For all the high-resolution photos from the Cu Chi Tunnels: Click Here

Cu Chi Tunnels
A captured American tank during the “War of American Aggression”

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnamese used fake ant hills as disguised air vents

The Incredibly Colorful Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple of Da Nang

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

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!

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Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

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.

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son
The Budai (or Pu-Tai) statue in front of the main temple
Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son
Swords and mythical figures – a Chinese epic in the main temple
Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son
Incredible colors and a solitary Buddha Image

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.

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

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.

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For all the high-resolution photos from the Vu Lan Bao Hieu – Chua Buu Dai Son Chinese Temple: Click Here

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son
More than a few swastikas, hey

 

Vu Lan Bao Hieu - Chua Buu Dai Son

Marvelous Marble Mountains of DaNang, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

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.

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For all the high-resolution photos from the Marble Mountains, Vietnam: Click Here

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
The immense view from the “Gate of Heaven” at Mt. Thuy

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.

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
The Marble Mountains consist of five mountains, each named for an element: Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth. Each mountain contains tunnels, caves and shrines

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?

The ominous entrance to the “Cave to Buddhist Hell”

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.

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
The narrow passages of Mt Thuy “The Cave to Buddhist Hell”

Marble Mountains, VietnamMarble Mountains, VietnamMarble Mountains, VietnamMarble Mountains, Vietnam

Thumbnails: Just your average stirring boiling souls alive in soup, toture and being eaten by snakes.

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
Buddha Shrine in Mt Thuy illuminated by neon LEDs

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

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.

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
The brilliant blue sky, sea and a sign of “new Danang” – one of many tourist resorts popping up along the otherwise pristine coast
Marble Mountains, Vietnam
The Marble Mountains, a zoroastrian church and the small town

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

 

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.

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
So peaceful… swastika!

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam
Marble Mountains, Vietnam

Marble Mountains, Vietnam

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

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here