Tag Archives: Vietnam

Travel Guide: Hoi An

This is the third and final post in a series of three about my travels with my dad over October break. You can read the introduction to the trip here, and my posts about Bangkok and Hanoi here and here, respectively.

The last four days of our travels found us in beautiful Hoi An, which is located in central Vietnam. Hoi An is often under water at this time of year, a fact unknown to me until we arrived. Our travels there could have been really disappointing, but we were lucky enough not to see any rain over the course of the week. As a result of the threat of weather, however, Hoi An was largely empty of tourists.

To get to quaint, sleepy Hoi An, located on the Thu Bon River, we flew into nearby Da Nang airport and hopped into a taxi for about 45 minutes. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Hoi An loves it (I ran into four of my friends there!), and after a walk through the tiny Ancient Town it was easy to see why. Not only is it full of old assembly halls, houses, and shops, but lanterns light up the entire town in the evening. I took the following pictures throughout our time in Hoi An:

In addition to being a nice place by itself, Hoi An is also a wonderful base for half-day trips to historical and interesting sites nearby. We took two separate trips out of Hoi An during our time there; the first was to My Son, an ancient Hindu temple site and burial ground for Cham kings dating to the fourth century. The complex must have been massive in its heyday, but much of it was destroyed by American bombs during the Vietnam War. There are very clearly marked walking paths because of unexploded ordnances all around the site, another wartime souvenir. Dad and I visited My Son as part of a tour with a very informative guide; he pointed out weathered motifs and symbols carved into the stone that we probably would have missed without him.

Along with about half of our tour group, we chose to take a boat along the Thu Bon River to return to Hoi An. The boat afforded us wonderful views of the river and of rural life on its banks.

Along the way to Hoi An, we stopped on Cam Kim Island, a village known for its traditional crafts.

Now that I've seen this, I wonder how non-traditional boats and ships are made?
Now that I’ve seen this, I wonder how non-traditional boats and ships are made?
I thought it was really neat that the carver drew the pattern on the wood. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that artists do that.
Somehow, it had never occurred to me that artists draw their patterns before starting to carve.

Vietnam’s Marble Mountains, located in nearby Da Nang, was our destination the following morning. The Marble Mountains are exactly what they sound like – jutting hills of marble that are no longer quarried because they’d disappear. We took the elevator to Thuy Son, the highest peak, and then made our way down, exploring the Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples, and various shrines and altars that dot the site.

There are also caves on the mountains, including Tang Chan Cave, which contains a few altars and statues. What is truly spectacular about the cave, however, is the sunlight streaming through large holes in its top. When the light is just right, it casts a gorgeous, unearthly light on the altars.

Cave shrine


In the afternoon, we wandered around Hoi An’s Ancient Town to take advantage of the ticket scheme that allows access to five historical sites within the town. The ticket is required to visit the vast majority of assembly halls, historic homes, and even some museums, so we saved it for our last afternoon when we knew we’d have the longest amount of daylight in town. We visited the Phuoc Kien Assembly hall, which started as a pagoda and later became a temple for one of Hoi An’s Chinese groups. It is home to an altar to the Goddess of the Sea, which I thought was really interesting. There was also an altar shaped like a boat, which was beautiful. I love learning about groups of people, their livelihoods, and their values through religious art and artifacts. What a way to gain insight into the soul.

Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall

Along with our ticket scheme wanderings was a very brief stop at the Museum of Folk Culture, which was interesting largely because the door of the museum was open, all the lights were off, and there was no one inside but us and another equally confused tourist.

The Tan Ky House, on the other hand, was interesting in itself.

Courtyard of the Tan Ky House

The Tan Ky House is a shop house dating from the late eighteenth century that incorporated Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese architectural styles. I admit, I didn’t know that so many ethnic groups and nationalities call Hoi An home, and have a place in the city’s history as a trading port.

The most interesting stop on our somewhat guided wander was the Handicraft Workshop where we saw a performance of traditional music and dance. By far my favorite part was a musical piece that I can best describe as ancient jazz. A musician who would have been a saxophone player in a western jazz group played a sort of double-bow violin that didn’t seem to be made of anything but strings and a small wooden base. He had a solo in the middle of the piece that was creative, innovative, and playful; I couldn’t understand how such an unassuming instrument even made sounds, let alone such music!

Neither of us were ready to leave Hoi An early Sunday morning. I, at least, have a mental list of things I want to do when I return, which I hopefully will. There is now a direct flight from Singapore to Hoi An, so it is certainly a possibility.

Japanese Covered Bridge

Dad and I had an unbelievable time during our ten days of travel together. I am so glad to have shared such a wonderful experience with him. We both learned a lot over the course of our trip and I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Travel Guide: Hanoi

This is the second post in a series of three about my travels with my dad over October break. You can read about the introduction to that trip here, the first post about our time in Bangkok here, and the final post about our trip to Hoi An here.

This was my second time in Vietnam. Last spring I went to Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend, which was my first experience traveling alone. It was especially fun returning to Vietnam (though don’t get me wrong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are as different as the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War) with someone who had never been there before. Dad particularly got a kick out of the traffic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To get you oriented, here is a gallery of photos from around Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which is where we were staying. Do note my fascination with the vendors who carry their wares on their shoulders. For every one of those, there are probably 3-5 who push little carts containing hot food that they cook right in front of you. I took these pictures over the course of the four days we were in Hanoi:

On the afternoon of our arrival, we started walking the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake, a walk that we never completely finished. We continued the walk on the last night that we were there. It seemed like everyone in Hanoi was around the lake that night, which was really pretty because the lake and surrounding buildings were all lit up! People were parking their motorcycles in designated areas, doing karaoke in public, meeting friends, walking dogs, and enjoying ice cream. It reminded me a lot of growing up near the Erie Canal, actually.

Hoan Kiem Lake by day
Hoan Kiem Lake by day
Thap Rua, or Turtle Tower, which is no longer accessible to the public
Thap Rua, or Turtle Tower, which is no longer accessible to the public
Path around Hoan Kiem Lake by night, with a view of the edge of the Old Quarter
Path around Hoan Kiem Lake by night, with a view of the edge of the Old Quarter

After wandering through the Old Quarter to get a feel for where we were, and to learn how to cross the streets (hint: look both ways and then just start walking), we made our way to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The cathedral was built during the era of French rule in Vietnam and remains open for services. We also ran into one of my students here!

French architecture, no matter where in the world, is French architecture
Wall behind the cathedral
Wall behind the cathedral

St. Joseph's Cathedral

In stark contrast to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, our next stop was Chua Ba Da, the Stone Lady Pagoda, which is now the headquarters of the Municipal Buddhist Association.

Chua Ba Da

Dad was pretty done with pagodas by this point, but I managed to squeeze in Den Ngoc Son, the Temple of the Jade Mound, the next day. It sits in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake and we had to cross the red lacquered Huc Bridge to get there.

For much of the day, we canvassed the French Quarter, which reminded me much more of Ho Chi Minh City. There were the wide boulevards with trees, plazas, and grand colonial buildings like the Opera House.

Opera House

The French Quarter also contained quite a few posh stores that would not be out of place in Paris, but were rather incongruous in the middle of Hanoi. I loved the street food stands and restaurants that set up right underneath the awnings of designers like Longchamp.

Longchamp, meet Hanoi
Longchamp, meet Hanoi

Over the course of the day, we visited the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution to learn about Vietnam’s revolutionary history, starting from the uprisings against French rule in the late nineteenth century. The museum contained fairly comprehensive coverage of the Vietnam War (or America’s War, as it’s known there) but with a distinctly different propaganda slant than what I’m used to seeing. As a social studies teacher, I’m familiar with the Vietnamese side to the war, and actually teach about the war using a translated excerpt from a Vietnamese textbook. My Ho Chi Minh City trip last spring further helped me understand the Vietnamese perspective, which I was glad to revisit.

We also really enjoyed the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which I highly recommend. Not only is it interesting to find an entire museum dedicated to women, but it was fascinating to learn about the very influential role women played in Vietnam’s revolutionary and independence struggles. There was quite a large exhibit on female guerrillas post-World War II. I didn’t know anything about that, so it was a great learning opportunity! Vietnamese women were imprisoned, tortured, executed, and awarded the nation’s top honors for their role fighting the French and the Americans. There’s even a special award for being one of the Heroic Mothers of Vietnam. Who knew? The Vietnamese Women’s Museum also contained exhibits on clothing of specific ethnic groups, traditional marriage, childbearing customs, and religious practices, but the exhibits about female fighters were the most compelling for me.

Following lunch at a vegetarian restaurant at the end of an alleyway, we headed to Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton.

The prison was built by the French in 1896 for Vietnamese rebels, but became famous in the US after the war because pf the American POWs, including Senator John McCain, who were held there. POWs tell stories of torture; the museum exhibits discuss ways the French tortured the Vietnamese, and then contain photos of American POWs playing basketball and decorating Christmas trees. Rather heavy dose of propaganda, I believe.

Something I enjoyed while simply walking around Hanoi was reading signs. Sometimes the names are adorably blunt, sometime they’re translated into fractured English, and sometimes they’re translated in ways that are just plain confusing. Rebecca’s Collection of Amusing English Signs in Hanoi is as follows:

The next day we hired a guide and driver to take us a little ways outside the city. Our first stop was Tran Quoc Pagoda, located in the middle of Hanoi’s West Lake. It’s home to a cutting of a bodhi tree from India, supposedly the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana and became Buddha, and was a gift from an Indian leader to a Vietnamese leader.

Nearby is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which we could only see from the outside because it was closed for maintenance, which is an annual occurrence.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

We were able to walk around the modest home that Ho built for himself across the road from the ostentatious Presidential Palace built by the French. It’s an interesting commentary on colonialism that Ho chose to live in the simple house and use the Palace as a government office.

French Presidential Palace . . .
French Presidential Palace . . .
. . . Ho's Humble House
. . . Ho’s Humble House

After a quick stop at the One Pillar Pagoda, designed to look like a lotus when seen from the sky (though I obviously couldn’t get a picture from that angle), we made our way to a workshop where we learned how traditional lacquerware is made. There is a processing of painting, rubbing off, painting, rubbing off, etc. layers and layers to form a base, and then a similar process at the end to even out and seal the lacquer. What I most enjoyed was learning about the decorations.

Naturally, we had to buy some art! Then it was time for the Museum of Ethnology, where we learned about Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. There were examples of tools, clothing, and jewellery, as well detailed descriptions (and videos!) of marriages, funerals, and religious rights and rituals. Behind the museum were traditional houses belonging to specific ethnic groups that had been moved to the museum site for the purpose of preservation and education. Excellent information about the houses themselves and the groups that live in them accompanied each.

Finally, we visited the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university. It was built in 1070 and is no longer used today, except as a historical site. University students also visit to take pictures upon graduation.

University students eating lunch while waiting for their turn with the photographer. The traditional outfits are rented for the occasion; I asked.
University students eating lunch while waiting for their turn with the photographer. The traditional outfits are rented for the occasion; I asked.

What I liked about the Temple of Literature is that it was originally a center for Confucian learning, so it contains a shrine to Confucius. Each of the four gates symbolized students’ passing of the four examinations necessary for graduation. As always with pagodas, each animal and motif is symbolic, in this case often for good luck and prosperity.

Our four days and three nights in Hanoi were wonderful. The food is spectacular, the sites are beautiful, and the city itself has so many nooks and crannies to explore. Now that I’ve been to the north and south of Vietnam, though not in a truly comprehensive way, I feel as if I have a real understanding of Vietnam’s diversity. As in many places, the north and south are hardly recognizable as part of the same country. The amount that I learn each time I travel is what keeps me coming back for more.

Flag of Vietnam

Travel Guide: Ho Chi Minh City

This trip was my first solo travel experience. We didn’t plan it that way, but Mitch wasn’t able to come at the last minute so I made the trip to Vietnam by myself. I am not a person who does well alone; I’ve written about that before. I am not a person who travels to foreign countries alone. But, this weekend, I became a person who can do that and do it well. This whole Malaysia experience has taught me that I’m a lot braver and more adventurous than I thought I was. To be quite honest, I have to be grateful to Malaysia for helping me grow into a stronger, more independent woman.

And onto the trip!

I absolutely loved Ho Chi Minh City, still better known as Saigon. (The airport code is SGN – how cool is that?!) The French influence in Ho Chi Minh, and in District 1 in particular, is obvious everywhere, from tree-lined boulevards with sidewalks and numerous public parks to a plethora of cafes. Anywhere with coffee culture holds a special place in my heart. There are aspects of Ho Chi Minh City, too, that make it distinctly Asian – more people have motorcycles than cars, traffic lights are in short supply, and when stuck in traffic, many bikers prefer to ride on the sidewalks. The gallery below contains general shots of the city. Then, I’ll get into specifics about what I saw.

My first stop was the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, which tells you basically everything you need to know about the museum’s bias and perspective. Since I’m an American History teacher, I can’t say that anything in the museum surprised me, but it was very interesting to see the Vietnam War (they don’t name the war in English, but multiple museums referred to it as the “war against US aggression”) presented from the other side. I took pictures of a few exhibit explanations and quotations posted on the walls to share with my students the next time I teach the war. (Sorry, not going to display those here – shoot me a message if you’re interested.)

Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, was my next stop. I have to admit that I was less than thorough in my exploration due to stifling heat, oppressive humidity, and lack of air conditioning. Since I’m much more used to the architecture of old European palaces, it was interesting to see a modern palace. My photos of the interior didn’t come out very well because I wasn’t using the flash, but I did get some decent shots of the coolest part of the palace, which was the bunker in the basement. The bunker acted as a command center during the war and was completely equipped for people to stay for extended periods of time. The old radio equipment (ironically supplied by the US when Ngo Dinh Diem was in power) was fascinating.

The Central Post Office is famous for its interior (old French maps, phone booths) and is a popular spot to take wedding photos! The massive portrait of Uncle Ho (so called by numerous posters around the city and explanations in museums) surprised me.

Central Post Office with newly married couple! Central Post Office Uncle Ho

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, built by the French in 1880, is located on the same square as the post office. Most of it was closed to visitors and reserved for people praying, which I really liked. Again, no flash so not the best photos.

To see the Saigon River, I walked down a wonderful street called Dong Khoi. While in that area, I had a cup of coffee (one of many) and window shopped in all the little boutiques. I returned to that area Saturday night for dinner and drinks. I didn’t see the river by night, but I saw it as the sun was beginning to set.

IMG_0099 IMG_0100 IMG_0102

By night, I did see . . .

The Opera House
The Opera House
People's Committee Hall (not sure what this does or is supposed to do and my guidebook didn't have anything to say about it)
People’s Committee Hall (not sure what this does or is supposed to do and my guidebook didn’t have anything to say about it)

Sunday morning I went to Ben Thanh Market. The chaos and odor of Asian wet markets no longer surprises me, and I am no longer rattled by vendors constantly calling after visitors to purchase this or that. Instead, I simply enjoyed the people-watching and the coffee.

I also ventured to the Fine Arts Museum, intriguing because I have no experience with Asian art. Interestingly, the museum was un-air conditioned and very few of the pieces were protected by glass. I don’t know anything about art conservation, but I can’t imagine that’s good for the art. The Ho Chi Minh City Museum was also excellent. This is where I found a collection of actual artifacts from the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum told its story in photos, but this is where newspapers, uniforms, weapons, official documents, old uniforms, and ingenious objects like a boat with a false bottom are housed.

Despite all that I saw and did, I can’t say I really feel that I experienced Vietnam. When Mitch and I were in Bangkok in November, I thought I understood how people in Thailand really live. I don’t have the same feeling about Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, or whatever you want to call it. All of my exploring took place in District 1, which I know is incredibly Western and the most frequented by tourists. Next time, I’d love to take a boat up the Mekong River to see fishing villages (friends did this and their photos were wonderful), I want to see the pagodas in Chinatown, and I really want to go to Hanoi. Obviously, there’s a lot out there; hopefully I’ll get to see and learn more!

Safe travels!