Globe-trotting: Southern Vietnam

Sam Brewster has set out on a globe-trotting journey this summer, visiting exotic destinations throughout Asia.

Sam Halfpenny, one of his travelling companions, files this third travel log from southern Vietnam, having visited the towns of Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, and Saigon. Photos also by Sam Halfpenny.

A dragon sculpture at a Buddhist temple. | Photo: Sam Halfpenny

The sleeper bus we took from Hanoi to Hue was an experience we will never forget. We didn’t fit in the beds — the average height of a Vietnamese is 5’8″ and the average height of our group is about 6′. We didn’t fit in the beds. We all chose the top bunks, which was a bad idea in hindsight as Vietnamese roads are full of pot holes and our coach driver seemed in a hurry. The beds were very thin, and the belts that went across our waist did little for our confidence. Seeing the driver bring a bottle of Vodka back onto the bus after a rest stop didn’t either. Fortunately we arrived in Hue intact.

Hue is smaller than Hanoi, but with wider streets and less traffic. The city itself has little to offer, save for the Forbidden Palace, but when we went to visit it we arrived just as it closed. Fortunately there are more tour operators than people in Vietnam, and we were able to arrange for a car and guide to take us around the former demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ was the area meant to separate the north and south before and during the war, but both sides flagrantly violated it nearly two decades.

The first half of the day took us to the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the secret roads that the North Vietnamese Army used to smuggle supplies to the Viet Cong. It’s now a highway joining north to south. We then went to Khe Sanh, an American airbase during the war, which has been turned into a museum site. It’s a blatant propaganda opportunity for the Vietnamese, and there are captions beneath photos reading, “Vietnamese hero standing over body of enemy,” and “American soldiers fleeing to helicopters as they come under attack.” It makes what should be a sombre memorial into something of a (bad) joke.

Much more impressive were the Vinh Moc tunnels. These low, narrow holes, sheltered the Vinh Moc villagers for up to a week at times, when the Americans were bombing the area.

The day was informative, but it left a bad taste in our mouths, with its very biased and boastful view of the conflict.

The ancient riverside town of Hoi An was the next stop. It was much more inviting, and has escaped most wars unscathed. Tired from travelling, we checked into the first hotel we came across, which was expensive at $15 for a twin room, but its pool was worth the price. Hoi An is famous for its tailoring, and we took full advantage of the low Vietnamese prices. A fully tailored three-piece suit, quite an expense back in Britain, might set you back $100 in Hoi An. We came, we chose, we posed, we looked good.

Getting the suits was time-consuming, which meant we didn’t get to visit ‘China Beach’, the nicer of Hoi An’s two. The other beach was lovely: hot sun, soft sand, and clear blue water, but our trip there was slightly marred by tiny, almost invisible jellyfish that swarmed in the sea.

We caught the train to Nha Trang, our next stop, from Da Nang. We were there for less than an hour, but even that was too long. Avoid Da Nang if you can.

Nha Trang is much nicer, with many westerners and western food giving travellers a taste of home. In many ways Nha Trang feels like a Spanish beach resort, and our group was divided on its merits. We took a day’s tour around the islands which included an absolutely glorious beach — impossibly fine white sand, impossibly clear, warm, deep water, abundant sea-life — and a disgustingly tacky aquarium. Afterwards our group split, half staying to scuba, snorkel, and drink in Nha Trang, while I and two others left for the cooler climes of the mountain city of Da lat.

The city of Da Lat itself isn’t especially pleasant, and is reminiscent of Skegness, if not in culture or architecture, then at least in atmosphere. (The Vietnamese like to holiday in cooler climes when they have time off, and now is their summer holiday.) At 1.5km above sea level, the city is some 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the country; jeans are possible, and air conditioning unnecessary.

We went on a motorbike tour of the surrounding countryside, our 125cc Hondas “speeding” along narrow and winding roads, snaking across the mountainside, and occasionally half-buried under debris from landslides. The climate is similar to a European summer in the highlands and the foliage matches, so that you may be forgiven for thinking that you were driving through the French Alps in springtime. We visited a beautiful waterfall, and risked our necks climbing down slippery, mud coated rocks, made ‘accessible’ by a rough step hewn into the rock here and there, health and safety regulations not quite having reached Vietnam. We visited the coffee fields, and tasted the freshest, most delicious, sweet coffee we’d ever had in our lives. We travelled down to where the tropical and the temperate meet, where the trees are a surreal mixture of cold, blue pine, and lush, green palm. On to Saigon!

An hour into the vast, sprawling, slum-like suburbs, and you begin to get an idea of the scale of how huge Saigon is. In the centre it feels much like a European city, and if we’d come to Vietnam to shop, Saigon would be the place. But our plan was to leave Saigon as soon as possible, so after a couple of days waiting for those that had stayed in Nha Trang, we prepared ourselves for another new culture: Cambodia.

After a ridiculously long wait in no man’s land attempting to cross the border, we managed to reach Cambodian soil. Cambodia has a very strange situation where money is concerned; for transactions of over $1, US dollars are used, but Cambodian Riel are used for the fractions, with 1000 Riel equating to 25 cents. This makes Cambodia expensive.

Phnom Penh, the capital, is horrible. It is filthy, smelly, and expensive. Hopefully the rest of Cambodia will be better. I wouldn’t hold out hope.

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