Skip to Content

Tag Archives: Vietnam

Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.”
– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Visiting churches is not something that comes to mind when considering tourist sites around Vietnam, but there I was, standing inside Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral on one of my daily wanderings through the city.

While in Hanoi I noticed a few churches that were being renovated–they looked like they were in disrepair and the renovations were injecting life back into them. The architecture and colors were beautiful, but I couldn’t enter the grounds with all the construction going on.

Notre Dame Saigon

Traffic outside Notre Dame Cathedral

When I arrived in Saigon, I found the pinkest church I’ve ever seen (inside and out) just down the street from my apartment. It was a fascinating sight.notre dame saigon

As I searched for places to visit in the city, I came across Notre Dame Cathedral, which is conveniently located across the busy street from the Saigon Central Post Office. As the post office was one of the places I wanted to visit, not only because I had postcards to send, I decided I could see both at once.

saigon central post office

The Saigon Central Post Office

Of course, I walked along this route more often than just to see the sights. Notre Dame and the post office were on the way to the Co.op Mart as well as to the center of culture and entertainment in Saigon.

Getting to know Notre Dame in Saigon

In the early days of French colonial rule, a church was built for colonists, but it was later deemed too small. Notre Dame Cathedral was then constructed beginning in 1877 with material imported from France. notre dame saigon

Construction was completed in 1880, with the two bell towers being added in 1895.

The interior of the cathedral is not as interesting as the many churches I visited in Italy and not as colorful as that pink church near my apartment. There were some stained glass windows around that would be of more interest to someone with greater knowledge of the biblical stories they represent.notre dame stained glass

The most intriguing part of Notre Dame is its location. It’s set on an island in the middle of a busy intersection with numerous tour buses stopping along the street every day.notre dame saigon

I often walked nearby, choosing this route because of the beautiful tree-lined avenues on Le Duan leading to the former presidential palace. It was also near Pasteur Street, where I found a pleasant roadside beer and food vendor for some entertaining nights (the roadside fun has since been replaced by a popular coffee shop).

Sampling Craft Beer in Saigon

Oh, this beer here is cold, cold and hop-bitter, no point coming up for air, gulp, till it’s all–hahhhh.”
– Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

On my first trip through Vietnam, there wasn’t much variety of beer. There’s Bia Hanoi, Bia Saigon, 333, La Rue, and various local brews that tasted pretty much the same as those.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Inside Hoa Vien in Saigon

When I arrived in Saigon in 2014, I found Hoa Vien, a Czech brewpub that was the first of its kind in Vietnam. The brewpub was near my apartment in District 1, but I found it rather deserted when I visited for a late dinner. Compared to most establishments in the embassy area, this was still expensive. When you’re used to spending less than $3 for a meal, $10 seems like a lot.

Hoa Vien Saigon

Beer and a meal at Hoa Vien

Granted, the food was good and the dark lager was a welcome change from all the cheap beer I had drunk in Hanoi. The lack of other patrons sent me to find other bars after that. I tried going there once more during my month in Saigon, but it was a similar crowd and I decided to continue walking. Also, the little cafe that recently opened at the end of my alley began serving a similar dark lager for less.

I did not return to either establishment on my return to Saigon in 2017, mostly because it was not a short walk. I did, however, find new brewpubs and craft beer bars that opened up in the more touristy section of District 1, just a short walk from the backpacker street.platinum pale ale

I did, however, find Platinum (not to be confused with Platinum in Seoul) at the new tourist street food market near Ben Thanh Market, but the pale ale wasn’t anything special. Fortunately, it was significantly cheaper than the more attractive new breweries that have opened.

On my first night I checked out East West Brewing and immediately walked out when I saw the prices at more than VND 200,000 per pint. Compare this to buying a bottle of Bia Saigon for VND 10,000 (50 cents) at a restaurant or convenience store. That first night, I ended up sitting outside at an alley restaurant with a couple bottles of Bia Saigon that only cost VND 8,000 each.

After my stops in Mui Ne and Dalat, I decided to give East West Brewing and Pasteur Street Brewing a try as I realized I had plenty of leftover cash and little to spend it on during my last day in Vietnam.

Pasteur Street Brewing

If not for offline maps and GPS I might not have found it

Pasteur Street Brewing

This was the most recommended brewery in Saigon, and I visited it before meeting a friend for dinner. It wasn’t the easiest bar to find as it was hidden down an alley with a small sign to indicate it. Then it was up the stairs to the bar for a taste of what they had to offer.

I opted for the six taster glass set, but couldn’t order the acclaimed Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout because it was a significant amount more to add it to the group. I was already paying VND 250,000 +10% service fee (about $13) for those little glasses and wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge more on a taste of one more. Plus, the heat of Saigon doesn’t drive me to drink dark, heavy beers that may put me to sleep (and it was still quite early).

My sampler included the Double IPA, Coffee Porter, Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen, Spice Island Saison, Pomelo IPA, and Jasmine IPA.
pasteur street beer

The layout and design of the bar reminded me a bit of Mikkeller Taipei. As it was before dinner, the bar was quiet and there were few customers. I imagine it gets more crowded than I saw.

I probably would have enjoyed the atmosphere more had there been a few more people. They at least played some good music while I was there.

The beer was better than expected, and I appreciated the local flavors added. The Jasmine IPA had a strong jasmine tea-like flavor that worked well with the hops and mellowed out the flavor at the end. I thought the Pomelo IPA was better as the pomelo isn’t as harsh as grapefruit, making this beer more mild and sweet to balance with the earthy hops.Pasteur Street Brewing

The Double IPA was also a worthwhile beer–a bit more complex than the others I tried. It had a fruity aroma to go with the mix of citrus and earthiness in the hops. It was sweet and bitter all at once.

The most surprising were the Strawberry Soursop Hefeweizen and Spice Island Saison. I was concerned that the hefeweizen would be too sweet, but it was refreshing instead. The fruit could’ve been stronger to make it a better beer, but it was still an interesting one. My favorite, however, was the Spice Island Saison. This beer had amazing flavor with ginger, lemongrass, and pepper mixed with the sweetness of the heavy wheat. If I lived in Saigon, this would be my go-to beer.

The only disappointment I had was the coffee porter. It had a great coffee aroma, but the flavor was more like coffee extract and it lacked a good porter base. Considering the tropical environment, I wasn’t expecting much out of a dark beer.
pasteur street brewing

East West Brewing

After dinner and meeting with my friends along the busy streets of Saigon, I decided to try a little more beer before heading off to sleep. East West Brewing was about a block from my hotel at GK Central.

I probably should’ve eaten more before having more beer as it definitely hit me harder than it should have. My light dinner was not filling enough for night of drinking.

Just as I did at Pasteur Street, I opted for the four-beer sampler of Far East IPA, Coffee Vanilla Porter, Modern Belgian Blonde, and Summer Hefeweizen. It was only a little less expensive than the six I had earlier.east west brewing

East West Brewing looks more like a beer garden than a neighborhood bar–it was much too loud for the small crowd that I encountered. The high ceilings gave the place a cavernous feel. The entire bar felt out of place in Saigon. It’s a common problem with trendy new bars around the world–they want to look like the same establishments in the US and lack local appeal.east west beer

The hefeweizen was light and refreshing and not too sweet, which made it more appealing than the other beers. It was a good introduction beer after walking in the heat. I found the Belgian blonde to be a sweeter version of the hefeweizen–there wasn’t a significant difference.

The coffee vanilla porter was disappointing, but slightly better than the coffee beer at Pasteur. The vanilla overpowered the coffee. It’s not a beer I would recommend.

east west beer

Coffee Vanilla Porter

The Far East IPA was nothing special, but a decent IPA. It tasted like an IPA should with nothing that differentiated it from others. It would be a worthwhile go-to beer if not for the price.

Thoughts on Craft Beer in Vietnam

Other than what I tried at Pasteur Street Brewing, I wasn’t impressed by the beer in Vietnam. And considering the price at Pasteur Street, I would be unlikely to go there often if I lived in Saigon.

It’s a similar issue I encountered in Taiwan with high prices in a city with a low cost of living. It’s difficult to justify splurging on beer that costs as much as multiple meals.

I would recommended having a taste at Pasteur Street to anyone visiting Saigon as it is a pleasant bar with good beer, but I wouldn’t push visitors to go out of their way for it.

Have you tried craft beer in Vietnam? What did you think?

Wandering in Dalat, Vietnam

Other than seeing my friend in Mui Ne, the destination highlight of my second trip to Vietnam was my short stay in Dalat (Đà Lạt). I had wanted to go there during my first stay, but the bus from Saigon was too long for a weekend trip and I didn’t feel like flying for just a weekend. So, when given the opportunity to get to the mountain town, I decided it was a must.

Dalat canal

The weather was great when I arrived

It wasn’t as easy getting to Dalat as I had expected. My friend didn’t know about transportation options, but I was fortunate enough to get some help at my deserted hotel. Communication wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but it was good enough. I boarded a jitney bus in front of my hotel and marveled at the open door as we drove through town to pick up more passengers. Fortunately, the driver closed the door once all passengers were on the bus and we departed the resort town of Mui Ne.

This bus was far from comfortable for the six-hour ride and I was only able to doze for a little bit of the journey. There were some loud locals on the bus as well, including one playing a loud game on his phone, but they all got off more than an hour before we arrived. It was still a more pleasant ride than the ones I had in China.dalat

Understanding Dalat

This is a small city with about half a million people, but it can still be crowded, particularly as it is a popular summer destination for locals. Its location in the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam give it a pleasant climate–it was a little hot during the day, but not uncomfortable, and it got cool enough in the evening that my hotel room didn’t need air conditioning.

Dalat park

Công viên Ánh Sáng park

Dalat was a getaway for the French colonists to escape the heat and humidity of Saigon. It was turned into a resort town at the beginning of the 20th century, and it still retains much of that atmosphere today with domestic and international tourists flocking to the town.

Dalat Lake

Hồ Xuân Hương, the lake in the center of Dalat

The French also discovered that the soil in the region was great for agriculture and began growing a variety of fruit and vegetables. Today, the region is known for its produce–the people pride themselves on the quality of locally-grown fruit and vegetables, and everything at the market looks perfect. There’s even a local chain store that sells high-quality, locally-produced products including candied fruits, dried vegetables, coffee, and tea (I bought candied mulberries and tamarind and some coffee, and it was all delicious).

Arriving in Dalat

After getting dropped off somewhere in town with numerous motorbike taxis waiting to rip off whoever got off the bus, I consulted my offline maps and decided to walk to my hotel. It didn’t look far away, but the winding streets sure made it more difficult to find.dalat vietnam

After checking in at Binh Yen Hotel and leaving my luggage in the room, I set out in search of coffee, lunch, and sights, in that order. I first stopped in a little coffee shop just around the corner from the hotel. As with all the cafes in Dalat, the little cup of bitter coffee came with a sweet herbal tea–I was told it may have been artichoke tea, but after buying some and drinking it I believe it may have been something else.

A long walk around the lake

Finding food was a little more difficult than expected. The route that took me toward Ho Xuan Huong Lake didn’t have a lot of options and most smaller restaurants were closed between the normal lunch and dinner hours. I managed to find a small place to fill my stomach and continue on my walk.

Dalat Lake

Big C mall on the opposite side of the lake

As I approached the lake, I noticed darker clouds moving in. I checked my map again and decided that I could walk around the lake quick enough. I’m apparently not a good judge of time and distance.

The approaching dark clouds didn’t deter me from taking a detour to see a Buddhist temple, which I discovered was inaccessible because it was under construction. Chùa Tâm Ấn was still a beautiful building and would be worth a stop to take in the views once it’s finished.Chùa Tâm Ấn

While the approaching storm threatened to impede my sightseeing, the clouds over the lake and around the hills made for some beautiful photos. As much as I wanted to hurry to avoid the rain, I had to stop a few times to take pictures.dalat lake

By the time I reached the opposite side of the lake, I began to feel a few drops of rain. I hoped as best I could that the heavy rain would hold off until I could find shelter, preferably with coffee and food. As the sky opened up I was near Big C, a shopping center with two colorful glass structures that stand out in the town. One of the structures had a cafe that I could sit in for a few hours, plus it had wi-fi so I wouldn’t get too bored while waiting for the rain to let up.

Big C mall

Made it to the mall without my camera getting too wet

As the rain let up, I headed back to my hotel to rest my feet a while before heading back out in search of dinner and a few drinks. As I saw that the clouds appeared to be clearing, I decided to go in search of the Bao Dai Palace, of which there are three in the city. I noticed that one was nearby, but it turned out to be a hotel with no public access. My adventure turned into an even longer walk than originally intended.

Dalat Vietnam

Along the walk after the rain

Between the bus ride and the walk, I was exhausted. I didn’t care what I ate for dinner, though I managed to find some amazing Vietnamese curry at a little restaurant not far from the market. After that I managed to go out for a couple drinks at a bar called Saigon Nights near my hotel before falling asleep from exhaustion.Dalat Vietnam

The rest of my time in Dalat would be much better planned than my first half day, though I still managed to miss a lot of sights I would have preferred to see had I had more time in the city.dalat lake

I will be forever thankful that I had offline maps with GPS. In a town like Dalat, with winding streets and alleys that don’t necessarily connect where one would think they do, having guidance is essential.

While it did rain every day during my stay in Dalat, I had beautiful weather early in the day and in the evenings. The mid-afternoon rains gave me an excuse to sit in a cafe and enjoy another cup of coffee.

Private Resort in Mui Ne, Vietnam

My friend invited me to join her and her colleagues on a trip to Mũi Né, a beach resort town north of Saigon. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get me a room at the discounted rate at the same resort–they got to stay at The Cliff Resort, which is possibly the best hotel in the area. I ended up a five-minute walk up the road at Melon Resort, which had decent reviews and a price I was willing to pay.

melon resort mui ne

Melon Resort in Mui Ne

Somehow, I managed to have Melon Resort all to myself. In three days I saw no other guests at the hotel–no one at breakfast or other meals and not a single room light on when I returned in the evening. There weren’t even lights turned on in the stairways or outside doors.

On two of the three evenings I stayed at the hotel, they had a band playing at the restaurant/bar with no customers. I felt bad about going out to dinner at that time and leaving the band to play to an empty house, but I wanted to eat non-hotel food.

melon resort breakfast

At least breakfast came with some fresh fruit.

Fortunately, my friend invited me to join her and her colleagues for breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost every day–her resort included breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t have to pay, and the food was much better than at my hotel. It also meant I didn’t have to eat alone (though I did have one breakfast at my hotel and one dinner without the group because I didn’t want to eat at the same place again).

melon resort breakfast

Simple breakfast at Melon Resort

I didn’t take any photos of the breakfast at The Cliff because I was in awe of all the food at the buffet. I stuffed myself full of fresh tropical fruit and coffee (there was plenty more, but that’s what I was most interested in consuming).

It was a little eerie that I was the only person at the hotel other than the staff. However, it was incredibly quiet. The view from my balcony out to the East Sea was so relaxing, I wished I could have had my breakfast served there. The outdoor dining area did not have as pleasant a view. I did not have nearly enough time to enjoy the balcony as I would have liked.

melon resort view

If I had coffee and beer in my room, I could’ve sat here all day

On the first day, I decided to take a walk around the area and search for the beach–my friend’s resort was across the street with direct access to the beach. On my walk along the quiet streets, I found a narrow road leading to the beach, and to my surprise it had a sign for Melon Resort.

melon resort beach

This is the beach I paid to have access to

At the end of the street was a mess of parked motorbikes. The beach was covered in weeds that were being eaten by some local cattle, and there was plenty of trash strewn about. There were also small fishing boats (more like tubs with rudders) lined up across the area. I wandered off to the side and found a section of beach attached to another resort–this section was pristine and the people at my hotel’s beach didn’t venture out this far (probably because hotel staff would have chased them off).

mui ne beach

Anyone want to go swimming with the cows?

It was an interesting experience watching locals at the beach as they weren’t allowed to use the other nearby stretches that were reserved for hotel guests. It was even better that no one cared that I was the only foreigner in the area.

mui ne fishing boats

Fishing boats parked on the beach

Upon returning to my room on the first night, I found a surprise hidden in my suitcase. As I opened it to grab my toothbrush, out popped a large frog. Frogs are not scary, but when jumps from your suitcase in a dimly lit room, it’s a shock to the system. I was thankful that the frog was the only visitor to my room.

mui ne beach

The better maintained beach

The following day I was treated to a relaxing afternoon at the pool. I say it was relaxing because I had the pool all to myself. Seriously, this is the best way to enjoy a pool–swim a few laps with no one around and then sit in the shade a read a book for a bit before taking another dip.

melon resort pool

The deserted pool at Melon Resort

Other than the time spend relaxing at the pool or on the balcony, there was nothing of interest at Melon Resort. I attempted to use the free bicycles, but found them to be much too short for me. And as the hotel was up a hill from the center of Mũi Né, I decided against taking a long ride.melon resort night

The only downside to my hotel and even The Cliff is that it’s located a long way from the center of Mũi Né. Of course, anyone who stays at The Cliff can certainly afford taxis around–it’s about $10 to get to the more popular part of the town. The advantage of both resorts is that it’s much quieter than in Mũi Né.

Returning to Saigon

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about spending time in Saigon again. And my trip ended up with a day more than I had originally plan in the southern Vietnamese city. I was on my way to join my friend for a few days at the beach at Mui Ne about four hours north of Saigon.

It had been about three and a half years since I set foot in Vietnam’s largest city. My memories of that time are mixed–I hated it at times, but I also had a great experience meeting some people and eating.

Bitexco Financial Tower

Bitexco Financial Tower

After years of living in more developed cities, I wondered how I’d fare against the infamous Saigon traffic. I admit to being intimidated by the thought of crossing major streets with the cars and motorbikes swerving past me. This was not a part of the journey I looked forward to experiencing again.

Fortunately, I only planned one full day and two half days on this journey, so I figured I could suffer through the negatives before heading to quieter locations in Vietnam.

saigon opera house

Saigon Opera House

Arrival in Saigon

Upon arrival I didn’t recall much of anything of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, but I considered that I only ever flew out of the international terminal. It was fairly efficient, albeit crowded when I approached the visa on arrival counter–there many more people than I saw in Hanoi almost four years before. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time I had my visa, the lines for immigration were gone, so it all worked out.

ben thanh market saigon

Ben Thanh Market, a very touristy place

While checking for transportation into the city, I noticed the airport bus and checked the route. Unfortunately, no one was near the map to help me confirm whether any stops were near my hotel. At a significant price difference to taking a taxi, which still would’ve only been less than $10, I decided to take my chances with the bus. The worst-case scenario would be that I would take a shorter taxi ride after getting off the bus.

Score! The bus stopped a short walk from my hotel, though I made the walk a little longer because I took a wrong turn after someone offered to help me with directions. It was a friendly start to the journey even if it wasn’t the best help.

Saigon hotel view

Not a bad view from the hotel

After checking in to Little Brick Saigon Hotel I was able to relax for a few minutes with a cold shower to help me prepare for the oppressive heat as I searched for food and coffee. The food I found wasn’t all that good–I have no idea what I ordered, but it was a bowl of rice noodles with some vegetables and processed meat slices. It was not what I had hoped and the only disappointing meal during my stay in Vietnam. Fortunately, I found better iced coffee…a few times.

Get me some Vietnamese coffee!

Not only did I need the coffee to wake up before meeting my friend for dinner, but I needed to escape the heat, pollution, and noise of Saigon. The simple act of crossing the street was stressful and I was already growing weary of the taxi and motorbike offers at every turn.

tuxo coffee saigon

This looks like a good place for coffee

But I found friendly little coffee shops, particularly TUXo, which was a quaint open-air cafe. There was always one person who spoke English and wanted to offer a friendly greeting, which improved my mood after inhaling all the exhaust fumes while walking. And I could watch life from the comfort of a seat–I wanted to take in the city and see what had changed in three and a half years since I was last in Saigon.

Wandering in Saigon

I attempted to wander through streets, first in the immediate neighborhood of my hotel and then farther out. It became clear that as I wandered more, I became exhausted from the heat and stressed from the traffic.

saigon traffic

Just some motorbikes riding on the sidewalk to avoid traffic

Oddly enough, the first encounter with a beggar in the city was an Irishman who approached me in a park claiming to have run out of money and had nowhere to stay. Being wary of such people, I said sorry and that I had my tight travel budget to adhere to. Note to travelers: ALWAYS have enough money to get a flight home.

I gave up on my extended walk to a market in District 10 on my only full day in Saigon–it looked like it was walkable, but after more than an hour of crossing huge, congested roundabouts, I turned around and settled for more coffee and a cold shower.

saigon traffic night

More traffic, but the color is more pleasant

After a pleasant dinner with my friend on my first partial day, I headed back to the area around my hotel to find a cheap beer before going to sleep. My mood was altered by an altercation on the main road leading to the backpacker/tourist area of the city. A Vietnamese guy resting on a motorbike said something (probably rude) to a foreigner and the Asian woman he was with. The foreigner yelled back and the two approached each other, at which point the foreigner slammed the local to the ground. He began asking for help in English, but I saw a crowd of Vietnamese men approaching–I know how fights between foreigners and locals turn out in the eyes of the public and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Nguyen Hue Saigon

Nguyen Hue pedestrian street

At that point I was desperate to find a beer. I saw some expensive new craft breweries near my hotel, but I wasn’t about to shell out $6+ for a beer in Vietnam. I headed toward the backpacker streets but became frustrated with the crowds.

Finally, I came across a small restaurant in a quiet alley with a few tables and stools in the street. For less than 50 cents I could have a cold bottle or two of Saigon Beer and release the stress of the city. Of course, finding out the price required a bit of charades skill as no one spoke more than a couple words of English and I was having trouble remembering how to even say hello and thank you in Vietnamese.

That evening ended on a much better note after finding that little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The beer was even cheaper than they had originally told me as well.

After my brief return to Ho Chi Minh City, I came to the conclusion that I had previously–Saigon is not a city in which I could live. There’s a lot to enjoy, but it’s not a comfortable place for living.

The Attraction of Vietnam: Not Quite a Love Story

This was the problem with a walk down memory lane. It was almost always foggy, and one was likely to trip and fall.
– The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There’s something about Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, that attract me. I had a love-hate relationship during my time in both, which is why I chose to depart Vietnam after two months rather than explore for the additional month remaining on my visa.

Hoan Kiem Lake street

The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake

I could identify what drove me to dislike both cities, and to some extent that is my own fault. I didn’t get out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I was in Saigon during Tet. Both of those conscious decisions caused me to dislike Vietnam. That my stay in Hanoi ended on a sour note tainted the first part of my stay in Saigon. It’s disappointing because I have wonderful memories of my two months in the country.

power lines hanoi

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

But then there are the little things that made me love the cities, or at least enjoy my stay. This is a reversal of perception–usually it’s the little things that lead me to find fault in a place. There were moments in Vietnam that made me smile uncontrollably and laugh, tastes that made me stop to savor, and sounds that calmed me. While I believe I couldn’t live in either city long term, I have admiration of joyful memories to take me back.

Chaotic life & oases in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I found a few spots in the Old Quarter or just outside of it that I could return to for a moment of peace. The narrow, crowded streets that could give one a heart attack while attempting to cross made each day an adventure when all I wanted to do was find dinner or grab a beer. And after moving at a snail’s pace through the streets, dodging motorbikes and hawkers, I could find myself at a destination that provided breathing room, where I could tune out the noise and watch the lights of the city appear as the sun set behind the hazy sky.

bike hanoi

Woman rides a bike along Truc Bach Lake

Sometimes it was just a matter of reaching Highlands Coffee–a local coffee chain that had clean banh mi for lunch–to grab a meal and take in the view from three floors above Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the only view of the lake that was undisturbed by hawkers or students who approached requesting photos and English conversation.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Other times it was a matter of fighting my way from my room at Hanoi Graceful Hotel where I was working online all day to go grab the 2-for-1 75-cent happy hour special at Central Backpackers Hostel. I was able to meet some travelers there who had tips on places to see in my limited free time. It certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere as the dirty Bia Hoi around the corner from my hotel that served 33-cent draught beer, but that dingy little place was for other evenings.

Truc Bach Lake

Quiet view of Truc Bach Lake at night

More than anything, it was making a friend in Hanoi. A young woman stood on the side of the road inviting people into a restaurant a block or so from my hotel, and one night I decided to stop in. After talking with her during my time in the restaurant, I decided I’d find her again after my trip to Cambodia. We became friends and have kept in touch since then–she even visited Taiwan during my second stay. She gave me my first ride on the back of a motorbike, a rather terrifying experience as I don’t like being a passenger and Hanoi traffic is not exactly organized. That experience gave me a little more courage when I needed a motorbike taxi ride back to my apartment in Saigon a few times.

Away from the crowds in Saigon

I found a bit more breathing room in Saigon, or maybe it was sidewalk space. I rented a large private room in a building through Airbnb–it was down a quiet alley off Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The area was surrounded by embassies and consulates, which meant that there was more security and fewer crowds.

Saigon riverside walk

Is this really Ho Chi Minh City?

I encountered plenty of frustration in my first two weeks in Saigon–the local market refused to bargain and tried charging ridiculous prices for produce, so I ended up only buying bananas because the one vendor gave me a fair price that was still likely higher than the local price. There was also a lack of restaurants in the immediate area for lunch, which meant I spent most of my break walking in the oppressive heat to get take-out to eat while I worked.

After Tet, I found a little shop in my alley that had cheap lunch for local workers–it wasn’t anything special, but rice, fried fish, and vegetables for about $1 was good enough for me. A quaint cafe also opened at the end of the alley, which I headed to a few times to grab a drink after work and play with a couple kittens that hung around outside.

saigon kitten

Curious kitten at the local cafe

Every now and then I headed out in the early morning to one of three Highlands Coffee shops within a 15-minute walk that had a breakfast buffet. For about $6 I could eat all I wanted and drink as much coffee as possible for about three hours while I worked–the coffee shop had decent Wi-Fi and an outlet for my laptop. By the time breakfast was over, I was over-caffeinated and so full that I wasn’t hungry until dinner. If that location was full, I went to the one down the street that was in an old wood building–it was beautiful architecture, but it had no air conditioning, making it difficult to work.

During my first weekend in Saigon, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace. As I entered the grounds, I found two young women taking photos of each other and I offered to take photos for them. They were both recently returned students from the US, so it was easy to talk with them. For the rest of the day we walked around the Presidential Palace and talked; we exchanged Facebook contacts before parting ways. Only one of them lived in Saigon, and she contacted me after Tet to go out to dinner. She introduced me to her friend and some Korean exchange students she had just met.

Vietnam presidential palace

Presidential Palace on a hot day (now known as Independence Palace)

Before I left Vietnam, I met up with the two women for meals a few more times–they introduced me to some good food and interesting streets. Most importantly, they directed me to the Co.opmart, a government-run supermarket with set prices so I could easily buy tons of tropical fruit to enjoy for breakfast. After our second dinner together I regretted already booking my flight out of Vietnam–I was beginning to enjoy my time in Saigon and had found routines that made life easier.

restaurant saigon

Cool restaurant my new friends invited me to try

After the city returned to life following the Tet holiday, I found places to relax and enjoy myself. I found a roadside restaurant that opened in the evenings–small plastic chairs and tables with cheap food and beer. I discovered a few good noodle shops that were much cleaner than the street vendors and set out to find more high-end restaurants farther from my apartment. I grew more comfortable wandering the streets each day.

There was still plenty of daily frustration–hawkers approaching far too often and the ever-present danger of crossing the street. There was even a moment when I couldn’t physically cross a street with idle traffic because there wasn’t enough space between all the motorbikes–I was trapped on a narrow curb until the traffic began to move again.

More than anything, I have the friends I made in Vietnam to thank for my time in the country. Without them, I would have written off much of my time there. I have been fortunate enough to meet all three in Taipei and hope to be able to show them around again if they choose to return.

Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place? What made you love and hate it?

Feeling Underwhelmed at Thang Long, a UNESCO Site in Vietnam

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site within Hanoi; the only other nearby UNESCO site is Halong Bay, which I visited my first weekend in Vietnam. I wandered upon it late in my stay in the northern Vietnamese city–long after I was already exhausted from life in the Old Quarter. The highlight of this historic site at the time was that it wasn’t crowded and there was no one inside trying to sell me things I didn’t want.thang-long-gate1

I wasn’t specifically searching for the Imperial Citadel, but I had seen it mentioned when I browsed UNESCO sites, so I was subconsciously keeping an eye out for it as I attempted to escape the crowds in Hanoi. I came across this piece of Vietnamese history after a morning of wandering around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and presidential palace.lenin-hanoi

The citadel is next to the military history museum, but I didn’t bother visiting that one–I was tired and wasn’t really interested. It’s also just across from a park with a statue of Vladimir Lenin–I’m sure he’d appreciate the teenager lounging at his feet and the couple dancing nearby.thang long

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was first built as a palace and other structures by the Lý Dynasty in 1010 and expanded by the Trần, Lê and Nguyễn dynasties. A more modern citadel still remains at the site, including the flag tower that was built in 1812 under King Gia Long, but most of the original structures were destroyed over the centuries. thang long

The remains of the original imperial city were discovered in 2008 when Ba Đình Hall, the old parliament building, was torn down to make way for a new one.

Today, there isn’t much to see around the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. There are active archaeological dig sites and some protected ruins, but not much to actually see–these are not like the ruins of Rome. While I was there, I saw a group of students who appeared to be taking graduation photos (I guess they were taking the photos a semester early as this was early January).thang long

As I didn’t know much of the history of Thang Long at the time, I didn’t find the citadel as awe inspiring as other palaces I’ve visited–it certainly isn’t as interesting as the palaces in Bangkok or Phnom Penh, or even the Forbidden City when it isn’t shrouded in scaffolding. Unfortunately, historic sites in Vietnam haven’t yet developed educational self-guided tours (aside from the propaganda at the war museums), but I hope more of this will be developed for Thang Long as more of the palace is unearthed.

Have you ever visited an historic site only to be disappointed until much later when you learn more about it?

Remains of the Vietnam War

“So I guess every generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”
Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War

My friend Lonnie at Veteran Traveler reminded me that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Poster outside the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

Poster outside the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

I visited some of the memorial sites in Vietnam–the Hanoi Hilton, the War Remnants Museum, the Presidential Palaces in Hanoi and Saigon, and the Cu Chi tunnels. I also learned a lot about the horrors of the war across the border in Cambodia while visiting the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. While the museums in Vietnam had plenty of propaganda, there was also truth in the portrayal of horrific acts of war–the long-term effects of Agent Orange were on display in the War Remnants Museum, and the pictures were difficult to even look at. Of course, Vietnam overlooks its own treatment of POWs during that time, but that’s par for the course around Asia (e.g. Japan’s actions during WWII, China’s actions in Vietnam and at home).

Most likely used by Vietnam during its invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent war with China

Most likely used by Vietnam during its invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent war with China

But I didn’t plan to write about the museums and perceptions of the Vietnam War. The idea was to reflect on the war and the people affected by it. There are still people suffering from that era–US veterans with PTSD, Vietnamese and Cambodians born with deformities due to Agent Orange. People in Cambodia are still dying because of landmines left behind by multiple countries that littered the country with the explosive devices–injuries related to such explosive devices increased 35% in Cambodia last year.

There were many more similar signs around Cambodia

There were many more similar signs around Cambodia

And while reading the news today, it appears that we have not learned from history. Our governments are still controlled by military arms manufacturers–just look at the bloated military budgets.

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

According to Veterans Affairs, 30% of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD. Another 11-20% of the most recent Iraqi War veterans also suffer from PTSD. There has been a 50% increase in diagnosed cases in the last year.

There is more than enough pain and suffering to go around.

If you’d like to help relieve some of the suffering, you can check out these organizations (and I’m sure there are many more worthwhile ones out there):

Cao Dai: A Different Kind of Temple in Vietnam

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh

As part of my tour of the Củ Chi tunnels outside Vietnam, we stopped at the Cao Đài Temple 60 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City. As I searched for tours to take outside the city, I came across this relatively new religion with a rather interesting temple. I had never heard of Caodaism before I checked out day-trips from Saigon, but I found the concept of it intriguing.cao-dai-temple

The history of Cao Đài only dates back to the early 20th century when Ngo Van Chieu had a vision and began the religion. Caodaism was formally established in 1926, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. Caodaists created their own army that fought against Japanese occupation in 1943. The religion was repressed by the Vietnamese government in 1975, but regained legal status in 1985. Today, the religion claims to have about 6 million adherents worldwide.cao-dai-temple1

To add to the inclusiveness of Cao Đài, the religion’s saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. I can’t really argue with a religion that accepts a literary figure as a saint, though I could think of other writers more deserving of sainthood.cao-dai-saints

The extravagant temple resembles a cathedral with elements of Buddhist and Taoist temples, particularly in the design of the pillars.cao-dai-temple-interior

While walking around the open space around the temple that provided little shade from the heat of southern Vietnam in winter, we entered the colorful temple with the large crowd of tourists before the Caodaists entered for their prayer service.cao-dai-temple-procession

Tourists were pushed to a gallery area above the main floor of the temple to watch the midday prayer–traditional Vietnamese music playing as the practitioners walked into the temple in their white, red, yellow, and blue robes. The yellow represents Buddhism, the red Christianity, the blue Taoism, and the white is for the ordinary adherents.cao-dai-temple-service

It feels awkward taking photos of religious ceremonies–I usually ask before I take pictures at any religious site–but after seeing everyone else taking photos, and more or less encouraged to do so, I snapped a few. I still avoided taking photos that could identify specific people inside the temple as it might be offensive.cao-dai-temple-man

Because Cao Đài Temple is such a large tourist destination, it seems that Caodaists just accept the gawking hordes as a way to promote the religion.

Lessons from Utility Workers in Vietnam

I know that things are getting tougher
When you can’t get the top off from the bottom of the barrel.
Operation Ivy, Knowledge

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where to go and what to do. I’ve been struggling with where to take my career–the dearth of quality jobs available in places I’d feel comfortable certainly doesn’t make life easier. But then life isn’t supposed to be all that easy. I know it could be more complicated.saigon-utility-work

Searching for jobs while living abroad isn’t as exciting as most people think. Job postings can be hit and miss (more often miss). The choices I have and the process that I have to endure reminds me of the utility workers I saw around Vietnam. I still don’t know how they can figure out which wire goes where in that mess–I wouldn’t be surprised if they made mistakes often (might explain the power outages). I saw utility workers fiddling about with larger messes than what’s in this picture, but this was the only clear shot I could get.

How do you simplify your choices? Or is it better to just try everything and hope it works?

Touring a Vietnamese Prison

From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light
Yusef Komunyakaa, from Prisoners

Tours around parts of Southeast Asia usually include lessons in modern history–the brutality of colonialism and war, and the struggles for independence. Nowhere else is the brutality so prevalent or recent than Cambodia, but Vietnam has its own horrors showcased for the world’s tourists to view.

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

There are more than a few museums dedicated to the Vietnam War that display the inhumanity of the weapons used on the citizens; the War Remnants Museum in Saigon has a floor dedicated to Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects on the environment and people. Of course, visitors have to be aware that certain details about the war are left out in an effort to properly retell the official Vietnamese government narrative of the illegal activities of the evil colonialists destroying the poor nation’s desire for peaceful unification.

On the day before my week-long trip to Cambodia, I headed to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi–it was a short walk from my hotel in the Old Quarter, but took a while to get to because of the traffic that sometimes blocks all attempts to navigate the narrow streets and unusable sidewalks. The exterior of Hoa Lo isn’t what one would expect of prison that housed the horrors of colonialism and war–it’s a large wall along the street that happens to have an entrance with a small ticket booth and sign indicating that it is some sort of tourist attraction. Had I not intended to visit this site, I probably would’ve walked right by it.

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Most of the museum that was the prison focuses on the French colonial period. There are stories of those who were imprisoned for organizing their fellow countrymen to fight for independence, including some who were imprisoned multiple times after escaping through sewers. Their stories are meant to inspire visitors with their dedication to the cause for an independent and unified Vietnam.hoa-lo-art

There are also depictions and replicas of the torture methods employed by the French.hoa-lo-cells

And the dingy cells that were packed with emaciated prisoners.

Toward the end of the self-guided tour through Hoa Lo Prison, visitors are introduced to the Vietnam War era, when the prison was used to house POWs. Everything in this part of the museum focuses on the treatment of the American POWs by the Viet Cong–how everyone who passed through the doors was treated according the Geneva Conventions. There are even photos of American soldiers playing volleyball and decorating a small Christmas tree. If the photos tell the narrative of the POWs during the Vietnam War, then it isn’t ironic that it was dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.mccain-suit

They even have Sen. John McCain’s flight suit that was recovered when he was pulled out of Truc Bach Lake in 1967. McCain was held in Hoa Lo for five years, during which time he says he was severely tortured. All evidence of torture by the North Vietnamese has been removed from local history.

It may be full of propaganda, particularly for the latter part of the prison’s history, but Hoa Lo is still a worthwhile stop on a journey through Hanoi.

Amusing Signs in Asia

Just a warning that the last photo in this post is Not Safe For Work. It is funny, but should not be viewed at work. There are two photos from Vietnam before the photo you shouldn’t view at work.(You’ll get another warning.)

While traveling I always look for things that make me laugh, even a little bit. Store names and warning signs usually provide the most amusement. In China it was because most of these signs weren’t translated properly and turned into Chinglish nonsense.

no-pointing

I can identify 3 out of 4 of these. Am I not supposed to point? Not supposed to have bandaged fingers?

The situation is a little different in places like Taiwan and Korea. I found English to be widely spoken in Taiwan (at least in Taipei), which led to intentionally funny names of stores or products. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get many clear photos of the amusing English in Taipei, except for the GOD massage parlor in my neighborhood.

I haven't tried this bar yet. I'm not sure what to expect

I haven’t tried this bar yet. I’m not sure what to expect

While English isn’t as widely spoken in Korea, most of the entertaining English used here is intentionally amusing. In some cases it’s the placement of two signs for different businesses that make Seoul so amusing.

I'm not sure what's going on here, but it's all over Gangnam district (did Psy approve it?)

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it’s all over Gangnam district (did Psy approve it?)

I haven’t found too many amusing signs in my neighborhood as there are very few in English. Most of what I’ve found are in touristy or expat areas like Hongdae and Itaewon.

These were two separate businesses that worked quite well together

These were two separate businesses that worked quite well together

Vietnam had its fair share of amusing signs. Some were Vietnamese words that look like something amusing in English.

Must be some amazing art

Must be some amazing art

Even some restaurants were unintentionally funny.

Not what I would expect to find in a communist country.

Not what I would expect to find in a communist country.

Warning: The following photo from near Taipei Main Station is NOT SAFE FOR WORK. You have been warned.

Classiest dessert in Taipei

Classiest dessert in Taipei

What are some memorable signs you’ve found on your travels?

Halong Bay in Black & White

I took a lot of photos during my two-day trip to Halong Bay. I was fortunate enough to have fairly nice weather for both days, and the haze that many tourists have complained about was not pronounced enough to shroud the best views of the karst islands that jutted up around the ships in the bay.halong-bay-b&w

Out of my 120 photos from the two days, I managed to take a few black & white photos that are worth sharing. These were taken before I realized that my camera has a second black & white function that produces clearer images (fortunately, Photoshop usually helps rectify that problem).halong bay sunset

While the karst islands made for amazing photography subjects, I found it more interesting to include the boats in Halong Bay–there were more than just the tour boats as well.halong bay boatsThe views of the floating village were of particular interest, and they would’ve been better if I had had a waterproof case for my camera to take it along in the kayak.halong bay floating village

Eating Banh Xeo in Saigon

For all the complaining I do about Anthony Bourdain mocking me with all his recommendations that don’t seem to exist, I did manage to find one restaurant he tried on “No Reservations.” I should, however, note that the reason I ate banh xeo was because my friend in Tokyo recommended it, and the reason I chose this restaurant is that it was the only one I found that served it–until I the restaurant at which I ate just before I left for the airport.

I think I can order banh xeo here

I think I can order banh xeo here

I had come across this outdoor banh xeo restaurant just down a narrow street, Ding Cong Trang, near Tan Dinh Market during one of my first days in Ho Chi Minh City. However, I postponed eating at the restaurant because I thought I’d have more opportunities to eat banh xeo, probably at a lower price. When I found the restaurant mentioned on the Travel Channel website, I decided to try it.

Banh xeo is a sort of giant wrapped pancake. It’s a thin, crispy layer of rice flour wrapped around shrimp, bean sprouts, and some other vegetables. It’s served with a plate of morning glory and basil that is used to wrap the banh xeo. The difficult part is cutting this dish with chopsticks to make it manageable to eat. Once it’s cut up into a mess (it really is a messy meal), it can be put into the morning glory leaf and dipped in a fish sauce. This is one of those few meals that you really have to use your hands to eat–there’s just no way around it.

Deliciousness before being ripped apart haphazardly by chopsticks

Deliciousness before being ripped apart haphazardly by chopsticks

Banh Xeo 46A is only open for lunch, which meant that the few times I walked past for dinner, I had to find alternatives. I finally made my way there for lunch–it was only a 10-minute walk from my apartment, but I had to arrive early to ensure I got a seat. By the time I left, the restaurant had a large crowd as I had seen most days I walked nearby to the market. For an outdoor restaurant in Vietnam, Banh Xeo 46A is exceptionally clean–I was impressed by the metallic shine of the open kitchen.

Quite a clean outdoor kitchen

Quite a clean outdoor kitchen

While banh xeo was not my favorite meal in Vietnam, it was definitely one of the most interesting I tried. A lot websites from a few years ago say that an order of banh xeo here is VND 35,000 (a little more than $1.50), but I remember it being at least twice that (or maybe I ordered something extra, I’m really not sure).

Trying to Enjoy Hoan Kiem Lake

While staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, it wasn’t easy to walk around. Quite often I would head toward Hoan Kiem Lake to buy a sandwich for lunch from Highlands Coffee, a huge local coffee chain. For about $1.25, it was the best lunch I could get considering most food in the area was of questionable quality unless you’re willing to pay the tourist prices.hoan kiem lake

This particular Highlands Coffee overlooked Hoan Kiem Lake–on nice days, the view was pleasant as I could gaze out over the maddening traffic.

On my first visit to the lake, I walked all the way around and crossed Huc Bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain. There isn’t much to the temple, but is one of the nicer temples I came across in Vietnam.

huc bridge

Huc Bridge to Temple of the Jade Mountain

On quite a few nights I walked down to the lake to watch tourists and locals. It is also one of the few places in Hanoi’s Old Quarter that has a sidewalk that isn’t full of motorbikes–people even go jogging around the lake. On one night I watched locals waltz to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

The one downside to walking around Hoan Kiem Lake is getting approached by groups of college students who have to take a video or photos to prove that they’ve practiced their English for class. Usually this only happens when standing around for more than a minute.

hoan kiem lake

The inaccessible Turtle Tower

Sometimes it’s a pleasant way to spend a few minutes. The first time it happened, I recalled students in China approaching me in such a manner only to coax me into visiting an art gallery and attempting to sell said art. Fortunately, the students in Hanoi only wanted a photo, video, and, in one case, to give me a Christmas card.

Entrance to the Temple of the Jade Mountain

Entrance to the Temple of the Jade Mountain