The next destination on my Vietnam list: Dalat, lies in the central highlands and was just one nightbus ride away from Hoi An. As always it is a bit unclear how long the journey is and what to expect from it. We (Kirstine and I, we travel together until our ways part when I go to the Philippines) aimed for the lower chairs but only managed to get upper spots which was still a lot better than the people getting in after us and having to sleep on the floor without anything as a mat.
Those people did get half of their money back, but I’m not sure if 8 euro is worth sleeping on the floor. Of course we arrive earlier then anticipated but it being 7am gives us an entire day in Dalat.
We booked a dorm room at the hostel called Santa Claus. The name gives an excuse to put up Christmas decoration year round, but it was so much more than just Christmas decoration. I think every centimeter in the house had some glitter or sprinkle to it (I have no pictures). I slept on a Gucci mattress with Chanel blankets. The owners are super cheerful as well and the beds are good. All this with an included breakfast for €3,20 a night. Then there is this cool option to join the family dinner in the night where the family prepare several dishes for a cheap price.
Anyway, it is still early in the morning and the best way to discover a new place is by renting a scooter so that’s what we did for two days. We went to the surroundings of Dalat to visit several waterfalls (Elephant falls, pongour, Datanla), a pagoda and a silk factory where the entire process was shown and I learn that silk comes from the cocoon of silk worms. It is a mountainous area, just driving here is a pleasure in itself. The waterfalls are much more impressive when seen in real life, but the picture captures some of it.
From Dalat my initial plan was to travel to Mui Ne, but plans changed and instead we went directly to Ho Chi Minh City. This time around with a day bus as it is only 6 hours. Strange enough we do travel in the sleeper bus so it is a laid back setting. Traveling by day gives the advantage of being able to see how the landscape changes and seeing all little cities/villages on the route. There are no highways and traveling just takes a lot longer than it would in the Netherlands.
HCMC is a busy city, much richer than the others cities. There is a lot of traffic, skyscrapers, important buildings and still there is some Vietnam to it. A lot of people from the north work in HCMC.
One of the first things I see when leaving the bus is this pop up barbershop. And I wonder how these things work, where are you allowed to sell and set up a shop.
In HCMC, former Saigon, we walked the city to see all the ‘important’ buildings. The Norte Dam church, the old post office, governmental buildings, the independence building. We went to some markets for shopping, there is a lot of fake stuff out there but although they make a good copy, the Nike pants for instance just don’t feel as good as the real ones. We went to a street food market and in the evening we went to a rooftop bar on the 52nd floor. This was at the Bitexco financial building. One cocktail is around 10 euros but there is no entrance price.
We paid a visit to the war remnants museum and Cu Chi tunnels to learn more about the war and history of Vietnam. The museum shows the brutality of the war with pictures and stories. The aftermath of Agent Orange, napalm bombings, the collection of pictures of diseased journalists, the weapons. It is a bit one sided but I don’t think of it to be less true. After my visit I needed some time to process. The Cu Chi tunnels are an enormous network of underground tunnels. They have been used by the Viet Cong in their resistance to the American forces. They have been build by hand without a design in some 20 years. The tour showed the different parts of the tunnels, how they had made booby-traps all around to protect themselves, how there was a cooking area, hospital wing, how the entrances were hidden and of course the tunnels themselves. Vietnamese people are slim, and during wartime when food and drinks are scarce even more slim. The real tunnels were tiny, no fit for tourists. But to share the experience they have enlarged the tunnels in some parts. I went for a 20 meter crawl through the tunnel. We descended a few stairs and then I had to squat to get through the tunnel. There were branches left and right and I soon felt very claustrophobic knowing that I was underground, I didn’t see the person in front of me, it was dark and cold and would only get more narrow. There was an option to continue up to 120 meters but I was happy to get out when I did. I never knew to be claustrophobic until I was in that tunnel. It was definitely an educational journey and here I was amazed about the brave resistance the Vietnam people have showed.
From HCMC we made a two day trip to the Mekong delta area. With some doubt about the contents we booked a two day tour. It was the cheapest one available but it had good reviews. A long bus ride to get there, a boat tour on the Mekong and then it became really bad. We went to an island where we first had a smaller boat journey in one of the narrow branches of the river. There were boats end to end and it was not enjoyable at all. Then we went to a place to have some fresh fruit and enjoy local music. The musicians were first singing Vietnamese without much facial expressions or enthusiasm. And in the end they did a round of “if you are happy and you know it clap your hands” together. I felt extremely ashamed to be a tourist there and was glad this was the last organized part of the day. The next day we would go to the floating markets with the group at 8 in the morning but Kirstine and I decided to do that bit by ourselves, as the best experience is to go early in the morning. So we had an alarm 4:40 AM in the morning, we were at the dock 5:00 AM and we found a small boat for just 4 people to take us to the floating markets. It ended up being an amazing experience, a 6 hour boat ride were we got to see local people on the markets, we have walked around in the Mekong area, seen bamboo bridges, had fresh fruit for breakfast, seen a lot of how people live in the area (poor), a ride through the narrow branches all by ourselves and the two markets in the area. The best moment was when we were at the smaller market and just watching the market ladies sitting in their boats, sun on their faces and chatting along. They were having so much fun, laughing loud and making jokes. I could not understand a word of course but seeing that gave a very happy feeling. When we met with the rest of the group around 1 PM and heard about their day so far we knew it had been a good decision.
My Vietnam journey ends in HCMC and I really want to remember all of the impressions which will be tricky. There is so much to see, smell and taste in this country. The rugged hills in the north, the colorful clothing of the ethnic minorities, bustling cities, quiet rivers, life at the Mekong, food flavors, colored houses, dogs everywhere, markets.
I have been to many markets and still can’t get used to the raw meat hanging in the heat or being cut on request or the fish still alive swimming in big baskets but the colorful fruit and veggies always look very beautiful. I have had so much fun looking at the scooters. Because there is no limit as to what you can transport on it. Chickens in a cage, pigs in a basket, all grocery shoppings and the entire family, a stack of crates, little food shops, basically just anything. Then there is the poverty, most people are poor and only make a few dollars per day. Entire families live in one single room with kitchen in it. But a lot of people seem to be happy.
The people are also super kind and impress me mostly by being able to forgive. The scars of the war are still visible, the emotional and physical wounds have not healed, there are still plenty places not accessible because of the land mines. Too many people have died in this war, too many people have lost loved ones and too many people are injured. But to them everyone is welcome, they don’t judge Americans that come to visit now. They are confident and fast developing. They seek happiness in the little things and work really hard for a better future.