Showing posts from March, 2016

Journey to HCMC, the Reunification Palace

So today I said goodbye to Hoi An and took a cab to Da Nang airport to catch a plane to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. I was surprised to note that the Da Nang terminal was a lot nicer than the one in Hanoi, at least it didn't look positively sovietic! Also, I was warned about this so I'll pass it on: when you leave a Vietnamese airport, you have to show your luggage ticket to staff to prove that you're leaving with your own bag! So don't throw it away until you're out!

After a one-hour flight, the first thing that greeted me in HCMC was the heat, as the city is at a smoldering 32°C these days. There's a taxi terminal right outside the exit gate, so I boarded one for a trip to the city centre that took about 30 min and cost around 180,000 VND (€7,5). 
On the way there I was shocked to see how different HCMC is from the rest of my Vietnam stops. It has sidewalks! Streetlights! Skyscrapers! Actual stores! It felt closer to a Western city than the chaotic Hano…

The Japanese Covered Bridge, the Assembly Halls

It was sunny today! For real, all day, not just for a quick moment between the clouds. After going from San Sebastian to Vitoria to London to Versailles, sun and heat are not things I have learned to handle, so I'm looking forward to finding out what new patches of skin I managed to get burnt today despite my precautions.

After checking the weather, I went off to have breakfast. After the dreamy array of delicious treats at the Pilgrimage Village, breakfast here is woefully disappointing, but at least you can have it outside sitting on the veranda, overlooking the rice fields. After that, I boarded the Jeep to the old town!

Today I was more disciplined and began crossing off items on the list of Hoi An's historical sites. You have to buy one ticket to the Old Town for 120,000 VND (€5) and that gives you access to any 5 Hoi An sites of your choosing. I used my first stub on crossing the Japanese Covered Bridge, a holdover from when Hoi An was a bustling trade port and populated…

Hoi An: first contact

This morning I jumped out of bed to see if I could take a quick dip in the pool before leaving. Nope. Still cloudy and cold. Three days in a paradise resort with a dreamy ocean-blue 40 m pool and I didn't even get a foot in! (It goes without saying that the sun parted the clouds the moment I got into the car to leave.)

So today I left Hue for Hoi An. The two cities are really pretty close but there's no direct public transportation between the two. There are trains and buses that link Hue and Da Nang, and then from Da Nang there are buses to Hoi An. What many people do instead is either rent a car or hire a driver to make the trip faster and more direct. Because I'm a spoiled urbanite, I opted for the second choice, which has the added benefit of being able to take the Hai Van pass in the mountains, where the ruins of some American bunkers from the war overlook both sides of the mountain right before Da Nang. The drive also takes you past the fishing village of Lang Co and…

The Tombs of the Emperors

Today it didn't rain! It's been overcast all day and sometimes the skies would go dark, but my umbrella stayed safely inside my backpack. Apparently it's gonna be sunny tomorrow, when I leave... Sigh.

I reserved today for a tour of the tombs of the Nguyen emperors, the same ones that lived in the Imperial Citadel. The tombs are spread apart from each other by a few kilometres, outside of the city, so you can't just walk to any one of them. You have to rent a car or book a half-day tour. I tried to get my hotel to put me in a group, but it looks like they only work wih their own tours. I could have looked online, but whatever, I let them book me a driver to show me around.
We first visited the tomb of Minh Mang, the second Nguyen emperor. It occupies a vast expanse of land, with a lake, lots of trees, very green and peaceful, all around the actual structure. The tombs weren't just tombs, but small cities designed to be used by the emperor as a retreat in life before…

The Imperial Citadel of Hue

Sigh. So, another day to explore priceless architectural and historical wonders of the world, another day that's rainy, cold, and foggy. Google Weather and my iPhone said that it would stop raining at 10:00, but it was a filthy lie. It never stopped raining. It hasn't stopped yet.
After chaining boats, buses, and trains, I slept like a baby and treated myself to a fantastic breakfast at the hotel. I ate as much delicious food as I could and left at ten. They didn't have room for me in the hotel shuttle to central Hue so they sent me in a taxi at their expense. Works for me!

The main attraction of Hue is the Imperial Citadel, a vast complex built by the Nguyen (pronounced "gwin") emperors much more recently than I expected, at the turn of the 19th century, when they united the north and the south of Vietnam. Looking at the state of the buildings and, well, the fact that it's an imperial citadel, I thought we'd be talking about the 17th century. Their reign c…

From Hanoi to Hue

I caught thr sun ONE MORNING and I immediately put on a cap and sunglasses, applied sunscreen on my face and neck, wore long sleeves and long trousers... And STILL I managed to get sunburnt on the sides of my neck (only the sides!) and the backs of my hands. I look like a walking candy cane.
SO ANYWAY, I spent much of today in transit and very little in the way of sightseeing, so for a quick recap...

I got back from Sapa via the overnight train and arrived in Hanoi really early, like 4:30. I got back to the hotel, where luckily they had a room available for a shower and a quick nap. I had plenty of time to spare before I had to catch my flight, so I took a power walk to the tem of Tran Quoc, a tiny Buddhist temple with a pagoda. This had the added benefit of taking me to The Bookworm, a nice English-language bookstore where I stocked up on some reading material for the flight. It takes like half an hour to walk there from the Old Quarter and another half to get back, but I welcomed the …

Sapa, Lao Chai, Ta Van

Amazing news: it's sunny today! It happened! I saw the sun today for the first time since that one day in Versailles when we had a nice morning. When I opened the window today, instead of a solid white wall of fog I could actually see the entire valley sprawling in front of me. I dashed downstairs, had breakfast as quickly as possible -not difficult to do since it's so unappetizing- and went out for a walk before our trekking started. I wanted to see at least a glimpse of the town without the fog, and indeed today it was a lively and cheery mountain town instead of an eerie forest settlement.

We met our guide at the hotel lobby at 9:30, and went on our way! She came escorted by a group of H'mong women, one with a baby on her back, and chatted merrily with them while we followed them as best we could. Our destinations were the towns of Lao Chai (not to be confused with Lao Cai, where the train station is) and Ta Van.
If yesterday's trek was a very easy walk, today's…

Off to the mountains

It's Sapa time! Sapa is a village in the northeast of Vietnam, known for its views of the valleys below and its proximity to the Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak at just over 3,000 m. It's also very close to the hometowns of one of Vietnam's ethnic minorities, the Black H'mong (so called because they dye their clothes black).
There's no direct route from Hanoi to Sapa; there are trains to Lao Cai, a town within one hour's drive of Sapa. The train ride takes a really long time, so what most people do is book an overnight train, which leaves Hanoi at around 21:45 and arrives in Lao Cai at around 05:30 the next morning, and that's what I did.
I booked a packaged trip for this part of my holidays, because there are a lot of moving parts (trains, transport to and from stations to hotels, then trekking tours...) and I was just about done with booking the rest of the trip. So I'm booked for return-trio overnight trains, one hotel night, transport, and two gu…

Sapa, Cat Cat village

So, after the adventure of actually getting here, I was dropped off at the Sapa Lodge hotel, which looks fine, and was given a fairly terrible breakfast while they processed my check-in. At around 9AM, our guide arrived and we left on our first tour. It was raining heavily outside -more than when I arrived- so I had my umbrella out and my rain poncho on. I thought my sneakers would be all right in the rain, and perhaps they might have been, but what I wasn't expecting were the torrential rivers pouring down every street, with no safe place to step on. There would be waves that splashed up to our ankles, so that our feet were fully soaked within minutes. (I had tried to get rainboats at a store but they didn't have my size...) It got better later on, but of course by then we already had puddles inside our shoes.

The scenery really is beautiful. It speaks to the beauty of the place that I found some sights impressive even in the cold, rainy, foggy slosh of a walk that we took f…

Halong Bay, Part 2

When I got up today at SCST (my new acronym for Soul-Crushing Six Thirty) the view was definitely clearer. It was still misty and overcast, but you could see further along in the distance. When you can actually see what's around you, the landscape is magnificent: we sailed all morning and as far as the eye could see were only rock formations and the occasional cruise ship. It's hard to overstate just how vast this whole area is.

We started the day with a Tai Chi class on deck, followed by breakfast (Vietnamese soup or eggs, at seven in the morning; thank my lucky stars that I was able to get some toast). I went up on the deck and took some pictures of the view. The mist was rolling away on the surface of the water, and the birds chirped unseen, like you would expect from a Chinese myth.

Our main and last activity for the morning was to disembark at a small beach (most formations are just rocks jutting out from the water, so seeing a beach is pretty rare). When the weather'…