vietnam: saigon to hanoi

vietnam is communist, but nothing about it feels communist. in fact, i would say from our experience, it’s the opposite. public gatherings, open-markets, political discussion, art, etc…it’s all there. our idea of communism comes mostly from 80’s movies, vice articles about n.korea and a visit to guangzhou last year and none of those come close to resembling communist vietnam. it should also be noted that we joined a tour group while in vietnam. we used gadventures bc it’s one of the cheaper tour companies and there’s more free time than tour time (also have a friend who works there and got us a discount). overall i would recommend them IF you want a tour group and you’re under 35. if we went back to vietnam, granted we now have a grip on the country, we would not use one and overall i would recommend going at it on your own. beyond saving some money and the experience of traveling alone, english was easy enough to come by on our own and as americans we never really felt in danger. for the most part we are liked…or tolerated…it’s a mixed bag….anyway…here we go:

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saigon is one of those places it would be easy to get lost in for a while. it’s big, its loud, its crowded, its young, its exciting, it moves quickly and the american dollar goes a LONG way. we stayed in district 3 (would recommend) and our first day we were on our own walking around hitting a bunch of the typical tourist highlights in the area: ben thanh market, national opera, notre dame cathedral, pictures in front of the independence palace and ate a super-cheap street food dinner near the hotel. vietnam’s version of street food usually consists of a bbq, cheap booze and these unusually little seats and tables – similar to what you’d find in a kindergarten classroom. day two we introduced ourselves into the world of vietnamese iced coffee and they murder coffee in this country. not only is it strong and effective, but it’s also delicious. all jacked-up we went back to ben thanh market so caroline could relive her groupon glory days and negotiate for a pair of fake new balances – $45 down to $18 – then had lunch at l’usine which is right near the market and awesome, highly recommend. we headed over to the war remnants museum, for the first of several guilt ridden tours, and then thru independence palace before heading back to the hotel to meet our tour guide and group. ages ranged from 20-34 and, as usual, we were the only americans. we went to dinner as a group that evening then to a club of some variety to break the ice. on our last day in saigon we got up very early and drove out to the cu chi tunnels for what would become our most guilt ridden tour of all. they do not let you forget that you are the preceding generation of american soldiers that fought in the vietnam war, nor should they. a lot of “america ruined this country” type stuff was tossed out by Law, our awesome tour guide, then he would literally turn to caroline and I, as the only americans on the tour, and say something like “but we like you and we don’t blame you”. well…a good couple hours of that and you start to pretty much feel like the worst person in the world. beyond the olympic level guilt, the tour was awesome and would highly recommend everyone make the 2hr journey from saigon. the viet cong were very clever in the way they used their limited resources to defend themselves and for $10 they will let you fire 25 rounds from a .30 caliber machine gun (we went with the AK). in both the war museum and the cu-chi tunnel tours you’re going to come across some over-the-top propaganda about both america and vietnam, but at the end of the day these things remind us that war is never the answer. when we got back into the city we went to pho 2000 where clinton (willy) famously had lunch in, you guessed it, 2000. this would be the first of many-many pho dishes. being in asia we of course got our feet rubbed before boarding a sleeper train to nha trang.

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national opera house, saigon, february 2015

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notre dame cathedral, saigon, february 2015

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inside ben thanh market, saigon, february 2015

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independence palace, saigon, february 2015

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caroline doing her thang, ben thahn market, saigon, february 2015

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l’usine, saigon, february 2015

TANKS AT THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM

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guns, war remnants museum, saigon, february 2015

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crazy war chart, war remnants museum, saigon, february 2015

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working for my meals, saigon, february 2015

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inside independence palace, saigon, february 2015

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private palace theater, saigon, february 2015

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entertainment lounge, independent palace, saigon, february 2015

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propaganda film at cu chi tunnels, saigon, february 2015

LAW EXPLAINS A VIET CONG TRAP AT CU CHI TUNNELS

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destroyed american tank, cu chi tunnels, saigon, february 2015

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inside the tunnels, saigon, february 2015

CAROLINE SHOOTS AN AK

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caroline boarding our night train, saigon, february 2015

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bed time on rails, vietnam, february 2015

of the six cities we went to in vietnam and dozen or so countries we went to in asia, the city of nha trang is not a place i would recommend anyone bother going. it was probably once a nice beach town but is now an over-commercialized town filled with upper-middle class russians laundering money and taking advantage of a less prosperous economy. seriously this place is unlike the rest of the vietnam we experienced and do not go if you can avoid it….however, if you have no choice, go to sailing club on the beach for breakfast and drinks, eat street food and visit the thap ba hot springs outside of town…but even then the mud baths are full of rooskies being rude to everyone. we stayed 2 days and 1 night and i couldn’t wait to leave. we were supposed to take another sleeper train to hoi an but gadventures claimed it was sold out due to Tet, which didn’t start for another 2+ weeks, and literally replaced it with the cheapest and most terrifying alternative in an overnight bus. enough strongly worded emails and we received a $200 pax credit to use towards another gadventures tour. whoopidy-doo. lets gtfo out nha trang…    

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our first impression of nha trang, february 2015

SAILING CLUB BEACH VIEW

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sek and caroline having fun pre-mud, nha trang, february 2015

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goofin’ off at the mud baths, nha trang, february 2015

we got into hoi an at 9a to start a 2 day/2 night stay in what would be my favorite city in vietnam. however, due to the bus ride neither of us had slept a wink thru the night and felt that we missed out on most of our first day (another strongly worded email sent). we did our own walking tour of the hoi an ancient town and started some custom tailor work for 2 shirts (me) and another bridesmaid dress for caroline at yaly coutoure then decided to cut our day short to go back and sleep. you will find tailors all over vietnam, and asia, but if you want high quality stuff go to hoi an and go to yaly. yaly is less expensive and higher quality material than the competitors and the customer service was top notch. we woke up for an early dinner at streets cafe with steffen and tabea, a german couple we befriended for being the most awesome people ever…guess i’m starting to lighten up on das deutsche. the next day was a full one; 10a breakfast at the hotel followed by an 11a cooking class at the streets training center to learn how to make vietnamese noodles. full and swollen we ran back to yaly for our first official fitting before taking a bike tour thru rice fields where caroline watered some cabbage the locals way and rode a water buffalo. tour ended with a boat tour down thu bon river with beers and fruit. dropped our bikes at the hotel and headed back to yaly for the last fitting and second of the day. my shirts weren’t quite done so we hopped in a nearby bar for happy hour and ended up having cocktails with some hilarious scottish ladies. post HH I made caroline wander around for an hour with me while i looked for the anthony bourdain recommended, bahn mi phuong, which we never found. we ended up having dinner at a small diner in ancient town then met up with the group to run lanterns down the river for good luck then over to tiger-tiger to show the kids how to play beer pong. at the end of the night we were stopped and asked for our story by this older white couple, this happens more often than not, and we learned that they were re-living a volunteer trip they had taken together 17 yrs earlier. no pictures to share of the couple, just a nice story. everything in hoi an closes midnight, literally everything, so we walked home and hit the hay.

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we had not slept so it was funny at the time, hoi an, february 2015

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bomb pho at streets cafe, hoi an, february 2015

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caroline making flat noodles at streets too, hoi an, february 2015

CAROLINE HELPS IRRIGATE ON THE BIKE TOUR

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rice on rice on rice, hoi an, february 2015

HOGAN POSES WITH A WATER BUFFALO

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caroline goes for a ride, hoi an, february 2015

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posing with a water buffalo, hoi an, february 2015

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steffen and tabea make a wish, hoi an, february 2015

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the bus to hue, february 2015

next day we took a bus to hue which is a fairly shady city but altogether more enjoyable than the russian run nha trang. our hotel was a total dump, this is their fake website, so we tried to stay out of it as long as we could. i know this sounds weird but the room was…wet? it was like damp. everything in the room was damp. anyway, hue was more or less an overnight stop to make sure we made the train to hanoi and i wouldn’t tell anyone to bother going. we spent our only full day there walking around the old citadel, which is probably interesting but they claimed it was closed even though it wasn’t (weird and shady). on the way back into the city caroline stepped in front of a commuter on a bike, what happens when you assume traffic lights control traffic, and we had two local college kids ask if they could walk with us to practice their english. we had a group dinner that night and decided to get the most shady foot rub in the history of people touching feet. i was 99.9% sure the two strippers they sent in, with no professional massage experience, were going to rob us. nothing to mention about the food, we ate at nearby restaurants on backpackers row and for some reason there was no street food or pho stands that we could find…kind of BS if you ask me. that night caroline went out with the kids and came home 5am smashed 30 minutes later sober and bored. next morning we attempted breakfast but decided to sleep-in instead. had lunch with steffen and tabea and another couple before taking the train to hanoi.

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old citadel that was still open but didnt let us in, hue, february 2015

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old citadel exit, hue, february 2015

we arrived in hanoi and immediately jumped a bus to halong bay which is a one-of-a-kind experience and another unesco world heritage site. that said, it was a rainy/foggy day and similar to our experience in milford sound we really couldn’t get a good perspective of our surroundings. we took a boat lunch tour around the bay and went for a cold, wet, foggy kayak tour of some coves. we then walked around some caves they “found” in 2002 which seemed weird that they just happened to find a disney world-esque cave system. they had all these ridiculous ancient stories about how this tribe believed the caves resembled all these mythological creatures and yada yada yada which i had a hard time believing they had deciphered theses stories from a cave system with no drawings. although, in very asian fashion they had lots of purple lights and what-not so that was fun. we left early the next day for the city of hanoi and spent the next 2.5 days mostly in the old quarter of the northern capital. our first half-day was kind of a wash, our guide took us on a walking tour and everyone but me, caroline and another couple ate a western lunch. we actually went to a fairly famous pho restaurant, pho 10, that i ended up going back to literally every single day…so noms. sent out laundry for $7 and ate dinner that night at “restaurant 96”. next day we wandered off on our own for a self-guided walking tour. started with the hoan kiem lake then got hella lost in the old quarter…so lost. there’s really no rhyme or reason for how the streets are named. for example, a street will just change names at any given point, doesn’t even need to be at an intersection..insane. we stumbled on my pho spot for lunch then went to the hoa lo prison which is famous for being where john mcCain was a POW among other things. i have huge respect for our servicemen but i think its worth noting that this particular POW was nicknamed hanoi hilton bc the vietnamese used it as a propaganda tool to show how well americans were treated during the war. meaning, it literally looked like a summer camp for the captured american soldiers. inversely, prior to being a POW camp, it was easily the most inhumane prison in the history of vietnam for political and politically radical vietnamese prisoners. early eve i took off with a handful of the kids from our travel group to play soccer against a local club team that our guide had set-up. i haven’t played in long time and that said i know why vietnam rarely, if ever, qualifies for the WC. that night we went to dinner at “69 restaurant” and then out on backpackers row. we were all a little over-served and started a dance circle with some locals. found out the next day that one of the very openly gay gentlemen asked if i was available…still got it! most of the group went home and a few of us found a pretty awesome late night backpackers bar on the roof of a hostel. i think i had two beers before deciding i was too old (see also drunk) to stay out and we called it a night. next day we slept in a bit, maybe 10a, and headed straight for the pho. after lunch we took a bus to the airport where our group went one way and we went the other. goodbye vietnam, you are awesome. i wish we would have done more, but we’ll be back.

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some rocks, halong bay, february 2015

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quick pose with our boat, halong bay, february 2015

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hogan rules, halong bay, february 2015

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we’re going in there, halong bay, february 2015

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junk boats as far as the eye can see, halong bay, february 2015

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fake cave temple, halong bay, february 2015

GROUP CROSSING THE STREET IN HANOI

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slow intersection in the old quarter, hanoi, february 2015

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typical bar/outdoor restaurant in vietnam, hanoi, february 2015

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river pagoda, hanoi, february 2015

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biggest bonzai ever, hanoi, february 2015

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hanoi hilton, hanoi, february 2015

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goodbye steffen and tabea 🙁 hanoi late night, february 2015

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we have obviously been out too late, hanoi, february 2015

*a note about g adventures: the business model is brilliant. basically they connect 25-34yr olds traveling in small groups with a local chaperon which they call a CEO and who is usually within the same age range. everyone feels safe enough to let loose yet it’s still “dangerous” enough to go home and tell your friends all your crazy stories. our CEO was sek and our group of 18 was a hodgepodge of nationalities and ages; german, noregian, icelandic, australian and brtitsh. the ages varied from 19-34 making us the aunt and uncle of the team. its also a roll of the dice as to how your group will interact on tours and nights out. ours was nothing if not consistent. cliqued out during the day, silence in headphones and faces in books on transport and some mostly missed attempts at going out. 20 yr olds today aren’t like the mogans in their 20’s; id say about 3 of them wanted to go out and get weird and just about no one could keep up. one of the aussies kept getting sick the day after. c’mon…i thought that was y’alls past time? besides not much for the nightlife, snapchat seems to be really popular…in all seriousness, we really enjoyed getting to know the folks on our tour and have since made the global bond (i.e. Facebook) of friends with most everyone from our tour. I’m even trying to convince caroline we should go see tabea and steffen for our annual xmas trip this year. 

please.do.enjoy.

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