This was the trip I never thought would actually happen. Chuck was away all of January, and we had no idea when exactly the Marines would schedule us to leave Okinawa. As soon as we got our orders, however, Chuck said with determined enthusiasm: “Let’s figure out your last week at work and book this trip!”
Unaccustomed to him being the eager one in planning these adventures, I hit up TripAdvisor and started booking Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos: our final Asian adventure.
Ho Chi Minh City
We flew into Ho Chi Minh City late on a Friday night, dealt with the visa shenanigans, and checked into the Alcove Library Hotel, a little boutique hotel in a quiet corner of town. As one might imagine from the name, it was cozy and bookish. We had the Winnie the Pooh room, which totally made my evening. We only had the next day to explore the city, as it was merely a starting point before jetting off to Cambodia, so we went straight to bed to rest up before exploring Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City is surprisingly easy to navigate, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. In an attempt to be efficient with our time, we superficially explored the historic area on foot, popping into whatever drew our attention. On our first day, we simply didn’t want to think about it too much.
We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, where Chuck uncharacteristically dropped a few VND into the donations bin. Generally, he doesn’t approve of the ostentatious excess typically on display at places of worship, but something about the run-down condition of the Basilica in Saigon must have stirred him.
We moseyed to the right of the cathedral to the Saigon Central Post Office, constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century. It was old fashioned and bustling, and we didn’t stay long, but I lingered outside to snap photos of the beautiful yellow exterior. There was plentiful yellow architecture in Ho Chi Minh, which was my favorite thing about it.
We strolled a few blocks in our floppy new Viet comrade hats and admired Ho Chi Minh City Hall, or Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon. It was built in the early 1900s in a French colonial style and renamed after 1975 as Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. Of course, I love anything French, and it was the same cheery yellow as the Post Office. Seriously… I couldn’t get enough of all the yellow!
We then stumbled upon the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, or Gia Long Palace, where we noticed thinly veiled anti-American sentiment and language. I am no expert on the Vietnam War, but it was odd visiting the sites as the “loser” or the “enemy” in that particular conflict. That was one reason Chuck vetoed visiting Hanoi later in the trip. He was in no mood to deal with the propaganda! Interestingly, I did not feel even a little bit of hostility from the locals themselves. They were a laid back and friendly people 🙂
The highlight of our day in Ho Chi Minh (besides the yellow) was our late lunch. I’m a sucker for anything that looks cute and local (even if it isn’t). I have no idea how authentic Quán Ngon 138 actually is, but it didn’t matter. It was delicious! We ordered a refreshing gin and tonic (or seven) and felt like our vacation had truly begun.
We had a flight to catch at 4:00, so we didn’t see much else of Ho Chi Minh City. But it was not the focus of our trip, so I tend to think we did quite well with it!
Da Nang & Hoi An
Chuck’s primary vision for Vietnam was renting a moped, eating, and relaxing on the beach. Since moving to Okinawa, we kept hearing that Vietnam was one of the best trips people had taken. So we booked the majority of our stay in the coastal town of Da Nang, with plans for a side trip to the ancient city of Hoi An.
We checked into the plain, but functional BlueSun Hotel in Da Nang, which was clearly geared more towards Eastern tourists than Western ones (that is not a complaint – just an observation!) The benefit of this was that we felt unique in our journey to Da Nang. It didn’t seem to be a destination swarming with Americans just yet. That said, I will be honest in observing that there wasn’t anything particularly interesting or impressive about Da Nang. The beach was certainly nice, but not striking – especially compared to the ones we visited in Thailand, Guam, Bali, and even Okinawa. But the water was warm and the sand was white, so there was truly nothing to complain about. We enjoyed lounging in the shade to escape the Viet heat, and quickly realized that even though we were in Southeast Asia, our favorite spot for lunch served savory Mediterranean dishes.
We did rent a moped one day for about $4, satisfying Chuck’s urge for adventure. Luckily, we didn’t crash, like we did that one time in Thailand. Instead, the rush of air was just what we needed to endure the trek to the muggy Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone hills between Da Nang and Hoi An.
The mountains are home to several Buddhist sanctuaries, some of which are still active. My favorite was the Huyen Khong Buddhist grotto, carved right into the mountain. It was striking in its grandeur!
Afterwards, we felt pressured to purchase something from the lady who “kindly” offered to help us park the moped, so I eyeballed her shop until I found a miniature stone elephant made of marble, extracted directly from the Marble Mountains. Allegedly.
My favorite part of our Vietnam adventure, however, was the ancient port city of Hoi An. Chuck vehemently disagrees. He thought it was like walking through Epcot at Disney World – overly sanitized, commercialized, and preserved.
But who cares what Chuck thinks?! I thought it was adorable.
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with lanterns, cafes, art shops, and charm. In its hey day, the Chinese and Japanese thought it was the best destination for trading in all of Asia. Walking through the town, you can see the blend of cultures, indicating that it really was a crossroads for trade across the continent.
We paid the unexpected, but low entrance fee and browsed the shops before grabbing a snack and adult beverage. We watched the river light up with lotus flowers and dragons. Mildly tipsy, I purchased some badass flowy white pants. We enjoyed a remarkably fragrant dinner at the universally recommended Morning Glory restaurant before wandering the night market, where I developed an obsession with finding the perfect bowl made from a delicately painted coconut shell (I found one, in case you were wondering.) We were then lured into a dive bar named Tiger Tiger with the promise of free drinks for ladies, but they were so horribly sweet that I couldn’t even finish it. Nonetheless, we remained merry as we finished our meandering and hailed a taxi back to Da Nang.
Sanitized/commercialized or not – I had a great time in Hoi An and would gladly have visited again.
We spent our final night in Vietnam in Da Nang city. We indulged in a moderately decent French meal before positioning ourselves on a pseudo-rooftop bar to watch the Dragon Bridge breathe fire at 9PM, as it does every Saturday and Sunday night. To be perfectly honest, it was underwhelming. We spent the rest of the evening trying to find a bar that would serve wine by the glass, since wine is about all I can safely drink these days. We failed, so I caved and tried a cocktail. Something about sweet cocktails in Vietnam turned my stomach more than usual, so I promptly felt ill and we decided to return to the hotel. It was probably for the better – raging the night before an international flight is never a good idea!
All in all, Vietnam was a good experience, but I think it was our approach that kept it from being great. We didn’t become acquainted with the culture like we usually do, and our focus on the beach was rather ill-advised. If we were to do it again, I would focus on exploring cities and villages, but not the in-between. And with the exception of Morning Glory and the lunch in Saigon, I think we could have found much better food 🙂
What we lacked in culture, nature, and cuisine in Vietnam, however, we made up for in Cambodia and Laos. Stay tuned for my updates on those stops on our itinerary!