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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Formerly known as Saigon

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Our first stop on the trip was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Kourtney and I didn't know what to expect with Vietnam, but were very pleasantly surprised with what we found. The city was clean, there was a bunch to do there, and our hostel was amazing. We arrived at 8am, dropped off our backpacks, and then went for a walking tour of the city thanks to the help of the hostel owner. He gave us a map, drew out a walking route, and sent us off for the day.

First was the War Remnance Museum, which houses Planes, Helicopters, Tanks and other vehicles all used during the war. In this part of the world, the Vietnam War is known as the "American War". It was really interesting to read about the events in the war coming from the Vietnam Perspective.

Today Vietnam is still a communist country, still with no freedom of speech or various other rights that we take for granted everyday. The government controls everything that is printed, on TV, and online. They even have loud speakers set up on every telephone pole in the city, and make announcements throughout the day (we have no idea what they mean because they are in Vietnamese).

With that being said, the description of the war was Vietnam against the US, with Vietnam fighting as a united front with only a few rebels on the American side. It was hard to read and see some of the things they have on display, as you can imagine it was very Pro-Communist Vietnam and Anti-American forces. But it was still very interesting to see.


I had to laugh when I found this description of the museum online, it is 100% the way I reacted to the museum too:

The museum was opened in a hurry, less than five months after the fall of the South Vietmanese regime. It has moved to new premises with 3 stories of exhibits and various U.S. military hardware (tanks, jets, helicopters, howitzers) on display outside the building. This disturbing display of man's cruelty during the Vietnam (American) War includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a simulated "tiger cage" prison and jars of deformed foetuses attributed to contamination by Agent Orange. There is very obvious bias as there are no "records" of any unpleasant deeds having been committed by the North Vietnamese Army.

We continued our walk to the Reunification Palace, which is massive, with a huge beautiful lawn and trees all around. It was the capital building for the South during the war, and the war officially ended when a tank from the North came through the gates in 1975. There is a replica of the tank sitting out front of the Building, just to the right side of the front lawn. After that we saw the Central Post Office, which is a very old building in the middle of the city, and an old Notre Dame Church left over from the French rule. Here's a few pictures of the old buildings left scattered through the city.




After getting some lunch we returned to our hostel just as it began to rain, checked into our rooms and waited for the rain to pass... which never happened. The entire city flooded our first night there, with the streets turning into rivers, and motorbikes driving through them splashing anyone walking by. We went back out into the rain and got some dinner and drinks at a little place near our hostel, and met a bunch of other backpackers who were trying to wait out the storm. It ended up raining all night, and so we eventually turned in and walked back to the hostel through the flooded streets. Overall, we were very impressed with Ho Chi Minh City.

Posted by Cassi 19:12 Archived in Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels

Day 2 in Vietnam

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The second day we woke up early and went on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, the tunnel system that was used during the Vietnam War to take over Saigon. There are over 250km of tunnels, each dug out by hand over many many years. The tunnels are three levels deep, with huge rooms underground. The first level is only 3m deep, and they connected to the trenches that were used for fighting. The second level is 6 to 9m deep, and the last was 12m below ground. They were actually started during the French rule, but were not used extensively until the Vietnam War broke out.



We got to watch a video about the history of the tunnels, about 10,000 people lived in them at one time in the war, including entire families with small children. Then we got to see some of the traps the Vietnamese used in the war to escape the Americans, which were really gross to see. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to run into any of them. In the background of traps, there were paintings of American's falling into them and bleeding on the ground (once again, a highly biased version of the war similar to the museum.. you think I would have been used to this by now).

Next we got to go to the shooting range, where old guns from the war were set up for us to shoot, including AK47's. This was actually really cool to do, we had a lot of fun here.

And last we got to climb through the tunnels, which are so small they require you to crawl through them and are pitch black. It was really fun, but we were really dirty by the end of the day. It is hard to describe how tiny these tunnels are, I could barely fit into some of the entrances. The little hole in the ground only a few of the girls were allowed to go into, apparently in the past people have gotten stuck half way in and had to be pulled out by all the workers!

They have widened out some areas of the tunnels so that tourists can fit, and even those are tiny! This is the entrance for the bigger tourists, rather than lowering yourself into a small cutout in the ground, and here are the bigger tunnels... which aren't much bigger.


We ended with some lunch before arriving back in Ho Chi Minh City for the afternoon. After we got back and got cleaned up, we shopped at a market in the middle of the city, which had hundreds of shops all around and was similar to the market in Cambodia. And late that night we flew up to Da Nang on our way to Hoi An.

Posted by Cassi 04:30 Archived in Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

A Beautiful Small City

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Hoi An is BEAUTIFUL. I can't say anything else that will capture this town, but it is amazing.

We stayed at a really nice hotel in Hoi An, with a sweet pool and free breakfast in the morning each day. We rented motorbikes early in the morning and went to the beach for a few hours of just relaxing. It was a beautiful beach that stretched forever in each direction, with palm trees and chairs to lay on.



After a few hours we wandered the streets near the beach and went shopping. Hoi An is known for custom clothing and tailors, and they make everything within a few hours. I had a new bathing suite made for me, top and bottom, for only $20 USD. It was done by the end of the night, fits perfect, and I've already used it in HaLong Bay and it heldup all day and night! I half expected it to fall apart by the end of the first hour, but it is a really nice bathing suit. I am very happy with it.

And then the adventures started in Hoi An...

If you don't know, motorbikes have secret compartments under the seats, so when you are driving you can put bags or towels or whatever else in them. The trick is, you open them with your key, by turning it the wrong way in the ignition, which opens the hatch. The problem arises when your keys are in your bag, which ends up under the seat, which locks automatically when closed...

Yes- I locked my keys under my seat of the motorbike which I rented. So now what? Does the hotel have a spare set of keys? No... Can we break into the compartment? No... Time to jump on the back of Kourtneys bike, and find a locksmith! We had to drive 5 miles back to town center, as Kourtney was driving and I was taking pictures of the sites and fields we went by. First stop was the hotel, where they told us who we were looking for. Then we drove into the market area, we found a locksmith who hopped on his motorbike and followed up back 5 miles to the beach, and he only took about 5 mins to open up my bike. Luckily it only cost like $5 (thanks to the hotel telling me which locksmith to go to) and we were back in action on our bikes!

After that escapade, we took our bikes into Old Town Hoi An, about a 15min motorbike ride, where the buildings are beautiful painted yellow, with trees all over, and vines around the windows. We walked around, saw temples, a show of local dances, and of course walked through hundreds of shops.


Here are a few things you wouldn't find back home, but are all over Hoi An:
Ladies balancing fruit plates on their shoulders....
Overloaded boats... no joke these boats were packed full of people and motorbikes...
Live chickens on the back of motorbikes...


We ended the night with dinner by the river at sunset, and of course we got Banana Pancakes for dessert later in the night. I know I've said this before, but Hoi An is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen in my life.


Posted by Cassi 20:02 Archived in Vietnam

Sapa Valley Trekking: Take One

Beautiful Views

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After Hoi An we flew up to Hanoi, spent a few hours wandering the city, and then took a night train up to Sapa Valley, Vietnam. It is located right on the border of China in the Northwest corner of the country. The night train was 9 hours long, we didn't arrive until around 5:30am, and then had an hour minibus ride to the actual town.

When you are in the middle of nowhere Vietnam, and the minibus driver turns on music at 5:30am, there is some music you just do not expect to hear... Our driver had a super remix CD, involving an extra long version of MilkShake... yes, a techno remix version that just repeats the lines "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" over and over and over... it was horrible! However, it made everyone in the minibus laugh with the little sleep we had gotten the night before.

We decided to go to Sapa on a guided tour, organized by a group called Hanoi Backpackers. If you ever are in Hanoi or Hue, Vietnam you must stay with them - assuming you are under 30 and backpacking through Vietnam... which probably doesn't apply to many people reading this. They are an amazing group who are well organized and super easy to work with.

There were 10 people on our trekking adventure:

- Kourtney and I, who were the youngest of the group (Kourtney is over a year and a half older than me... making me the baby for the trek)
- Three girls (two Canadian and one American) who had just finished teaching English for two years in Korea, and were spending their final paycheck backpacking the whole region before heading home for the holidays
- Two guys from Australia who were also on a backpacking trip across multiple countries over multiple months
- Two dutch guys. Not really sure what their plans were... they didn't talk much...
- One solo traveler from Australia who was just beginning his multiple month journey through Asia, I think this was one of his first destinations

Everyone else in the group was 25 to 30, and obviously no one else was still in school.

When we arrived we had a few hours to shower, grab some food and whatever supplies you needed (backpackers tend to run out of things like shampoo, or they lose things along the way, or things break...). And at 9am, we started trekking!

We aren't really sure how far we hiked, everything we read said something different, but we think Day 1 was around 15km. We had one guide, named Hein, who was really funny. He was hiking in a clean, perfectly white, pressed shirt, and somehow never got it dirty. They rest of us were disgusting by the end of the day. But it was all worth it for the views that can be seen from the trail!

The views were amazing, but also impressive were the little old ladies that were trekking with us. There are these tiny women who hiked the whole way with us (trying to sell us things out of their baskets of course) but they were solid! They helped in areas where it was hard to climb up, they showed you the best way to get through rivers and which rocks to step on, and they let you know if you were taking too long taking pictures of the views! Even though they got annoying at times, I will never be in as good shape as these old ladies.


Posted by Cassi 20:36 Archived in Vietnam

Homestay in Sapa

It gets cold in Vietnam?

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As our day of beautiful views came to an end, we arrived at a small house where we would be spending the night. We chose to do a home stay program, where one family hosts us for the night and cooks dinner and gives us beds. We were happy to find that all 10 of us would be staying in the same place, there was a second story loft area that had some cushions on the floor, heavy blankets, and mosquito nets for us to sleep with.

The sun set at about 5pm, leaving us in the dark sitting around a table waiting for the electricity to kick in. The "town" (about 5 buildings.. maybe) doesn't turn on electricity until 6pm. Dinner was a whole bunch of food - literally plates full of food that were passed around. Of course I only stuck with the rice and vegetables, of which there was plenty. We sat around talking with our guide and host about the area, the different type of people who live in the area (there are different hill tribe groups in each of the different villages), and where we would be going the next day.

One thing about Sapa: It is in the north, close to the border of China.. and it is winter in the north (which we forget about in Singapore). Therefore it gets cold (and by cold, I mean 40's). Please note the winter jackets and pants we all are wearing in the picture below.

And then came the rice wine...

Let me explain rice wine: it is not wine. All of the things we read about the trip, and all the people we talked to before, told us drinking rice wine with the locals would be a highlight of the trip. Rice wine is a taken in shots, and is about 18% to 25% alcohol (36 to 50 proof). We had bottles of rice wine given to us... and they kept coming and coming and coming. Every time something happened, anything at all, our host would pour us another round of rice wine and make a toast.

We don't know if we were a younger group than normally stays at this house, or if they host groups every night and supply them with endless rice wine, but either way we aren't sure how this family handles it. We were all asleep by 11:30 (dinner and rice wine started at about 6:30), and when we got up the next morning everything was picked up and put away like we had never been there at all.

Waking up the next morning was an entirely different experience. Because we were sleeping in a loft above the main room, all the noises from downstairs traveled up to where we were sleeping. We are 99% certain we awoke to a slaughter happening below us. We heard animals in the house, scary loud noises, and lots of wings flapping. We all just looked around at each other but no one really said anything, we were all in shock. We should have guessed that is how they get their food, there are animals running free everywhere in Sapa, wandering the trails and doing their own thing, but we didn't expect to wake up to a slaughter.

The homestay was such a fun experience, I would do it again in an instant. Our group was a ton of fun to be with for these few days, and our host and guide were amazing.


Posted by Cassi 22:08 Archived in Vietnam

Sapa Valley Trekking: Take Two

Up's and Down's

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We had a huge breakfast made for us when we all got up and moving, which was about 6am when the sun was up and the roosters were making all sorts of sounds (we all fell back asleep after the slaughter happened... it was still dark out). This was one of the best breakfasts I have ever had in my life. We had creeps, which were homemade of course, with bananas, asian pears, limes and sugar to fill them with. I was a little confused at first as to why I would ever put a lime into a creep, but you use the lime juice to mix with the sugar and it makes like icing/syrup amazingness. The fruit was fresh picked, the creeps were warm, and everything was perfect.

After our homestay we set out for day number two of trekking, which was shorter in distance but much harder in terrain. Our guide told us we would be hiking up a mountain to a waterfall, and then down into a valley to a village, then up another mountain to a road where we would catch the bus back into our first main town. The distance was only around 10km, but we didn't realize the up's and down's were going to be straight up and straight down.

But it was all worth it- the waterfall was amazing. I can't capture the waterfall in one picture, but it was almost straight down, and we could sit along the top on the huge rocks. It wasn't like a rushing waterfall, it was like a little stream that constantly flowed over the edge, enough for us to walk across and sit around without getting wet. We rested here for like half an hour, talking with the other people in our group and enjoying the view.


After the waterfall, we hiked straight down to the river below. I thought many times I might tumble to my death, as I was dragged down by those old ladies who were practically running this trail (stopping to take pictures was NOT an option). But once we reached the bottom we were able to take a swim in the river, which was freezing cold and absolutely beautiful.

Along our hike we stopped at a local school, and we were able to play games with the kids who were outside. They played hopscotch, and some crazy game with a stick and ball that we couldn't figure out the rules to. The kids in class were so well mannered, and their handwriting was the most amazing this I have ever seen (these kids are like 7 or 8). I tried to take a picture but it is hard to see the detail.


Last we hiked up to a small town for some lunch, and we caught the bus back to the main town we started our journey from. Sapa Valley trekking was amazing, and the views were awesome. I highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to go-but be careful of the ricewine!


Posted by Cassi 03:37 Archived in Vietnam

The City of Sapa

Motorbikes in the Mountains

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After we got back to town, we showered up and had the afternoon to ourselves before we caught the night train back to Hanoi. We were too tired to wander far from the hotel, but we found an alley full of motorbikes for rent, so naturally we got a bunch to share and rode motorbikes through the city ("city" meaning the actual town of Sapa). There isn't much to say about the ride- other than it was freezing cold once the sun set, but I thought the buildings were pretty and the mountains in the background are amazing.


Posted by Cassi 04:11 Archived in Vietnam

HaLong Bay

Rock Long, Rock Hard!!!!!!

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We got our night train from Sapa at 9pm, arrived back in Hanoi at about 5am, caught a cab back to the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, repacked our bags, and left at 8am sharp on a 4 hour bus ride to HaLong Bay. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

We got on our boat- the Jolly Rodger- and sailed for about 2 hours weaving through the islands before stopping in the Bay. Kourtney, along with the two Australian guys from Sapa, were the only people I knew on this trip but we made new friends quickly.


Words cannot describe HaLong Bay. The bay itself is a maze of limestone cliffs sticking hundreds of feet into the air, with thousands of them in every direction. It is located in the Northeast Corner of Vietnam, and was recently named one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Only locals can navigate through the islands, as it is impossible to see the ocean or the mainland once you get lost within them.



After our cruise, and us staring at our surroundings in amazement, we got lunch and settled into our cabins. Then we were able to tan on the top deck, swim in the bay, and even jump off the side of our 3 story boat- which was awesome! People were diving into the ocean, and our tour guides were even doing flips from the third story.

After swimming we set off for a sunset kayak tour, where we ventured through tunnels, around rocks, into caves and we were even able to climb on some of the islands. We stopped at a few floating villages, filled with locals who live on the water, where we could load up on drinks, snacks or whatever you wanted to get.

I felt bad for my kayak partner Leigh, because I stopped paddling like every 2 seconds to take a picture, but I did warn him this would happen so he couldn't yell at me in the process!

It was dark by the time we finished kayaking, so we went back to the Jolly Rodger and the "Rock Long, Rock Hard" party officially started. Although I have zero pictures from the rest of the night (I couldn't charge my camera in Sapa or on the trains/busses so my battery died), it was a great time with a group of random people in Vietnam.



We got up the next morning for breakfast at around 7:30 and basically sat around the top deck for a few hours enjoying the views and trying to recover from the night before, reenacting some of the funnier events. Eventually it was time to say goodbye to HaLong Bay, and we sailed back to port before catching the bus back to Hanoi.

Posted by Cassi 19:26 Archived in Vietnam


Last Stop in Vietnam

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After a few crazy days of traveling around Kourtney and I finally got to stop and rest in Hanoi for a night- no plans and nothing to do but wander the city. We got to visit a few of the sites around town, but mostly we just walked around, got coffee in a little shop and sat for a few hours talking everything we had done in the last week.

We visited Ngoc Son Temple, which extends into the lake in the middle of the city. It was really pretty surrounded by the water and trees, and the inside was all red and gold painted. There were Buddha statues from all over Southeast Asia collected inside, with incenses burning It was a fairly small temple, but it has a beautiful setting around it.


Next we wandered to St. Joseph Cathedral located in the middle of the city. It is an old church left over from the 1800's. It looks really old and worn down, and it towers over the other buildings in the area. This church, along with most of the old buildings in Vietnam, is famous for staying intact throughout the war.


And here are some various other shots from around the city, I loved the colorful buildings that were found all over.


We decided not to visit any museums or go to any shows or do much shopping, we were so worn out at this point from the previous days that we really just needed time to relax. We went back to the Hostel - still staying at at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel downtown- and turned in for the night.

Our trip to Vietnam was over, and we were very satisfied with everything that we had done and seen. I absolutely loved Vietnam.

Posted by Cassi 16:37 Archived in Vietnam

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