Thursday, November 10, 2016

Vietnam Take 2: HoChiMinh and Nha Trang

As most of you know, for the past 3 years I've gotten to do my fair share of travel around Southeast Asia, but sadly, I recently finished up my last Asian vacation for the foreseeable future.  For my last hurrah, I went back to Vietnam because I honestly loved it so much when I went last year that I knew I wanted to go back again; also, Vietnam is a big country that has so much history (especially US-related history) that I knew I had unfinished business there.  Last year I spent my time in the northern and middle parts of Vietnam, visiting Hanoi, Danang and Hoi An, but this time around I headed down south to explore Ho Chi Minh and Nha Trang.  Unfortunately my trip got off to a pretty rough start, as my mom was supposed to accompany me to Vietnam, but sometimes plans don't work out the way you want them to and this turned into a solo adventure.  If I've learned anything about traveling it's that you need to be flexible and learn how to role with the punches!

Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
One night, I took a night tour by motorbike with Bach who was an excellent tour guide.  He also happened to work at the hostel I was staying at.  He showed me where the locals go and what they eat.  He even taught me some Vietnamese words and made me try buying flowers using only Vietnamese.  Unfortunately I've already forgotten it all.

I kicked off my trip in Saigon, or, as it's known nowadays, Ho Chi Minh City.  One thing I've noticed about different cities throughout the world is that they all have a similar vibe.  Have you ever noticed that?  Cities are often busy, crowded, noisy, have their few notable landmarks but have mostly been stripped of their cultural atmosphere to become more convenient for travelers.  So in a sense, Ho Chi Minh City encompassed the city vibe I've felt and seen in other cities I've visited.  There was the the must-see landmarks that were special to Ho Chi Minh of course, but other than that, I wasn't too impressed with the city; it had that typical "city-vibe" I've seen before.  And I had also somehow forgotten how overrun Vietnam is with the thousands of motorbikes speeding though the streets, so dodging those with every step I took was quite the adventure in itself. 

Statue of Ho Chi Minh

HoChiMinh City Hall

Famous Ben Thanh Market: home to textile, food, and handicraft vendors

The memorial that stands at the intersection where, in 1963, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burned himself alive as a form of protest.  Below is the original picture as it happened, which many of you will probably recognize.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

The Famous HoChiMinh City Post Office

Post Office (inside)

Luckily, I was expecting Ho Chi Minh to be just that- another city -so I had a couple day trips outside the city planned that I thought could enlighten me more about the Ho Chi Minh City and its rich culture.  My first trip was to see the CuChi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels spreading thousands of miles across the country that served as bases for the Communist Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War.  The CuChi Tunnels sheltered the Viet Cong army against the better-equipped American troops, the latter of which had better access to assault weapons and other supplies.  The tunnels served as not only a refuge for soldiers and village people, but also as underground highways for transporting war supplies like weapons, food, and clothes; the tunnels also included larger rooms that were transformed into hospitals, kitchens, etc.  The tunnels also gave the Viet Cong military an advantage over the American soldiers, as the Viet Cong were able to successfully plant booby traps and arrange surprise attacks on the American enemy, while staying safely underground themselves.  The tunnels also gave the Viet Cong soldiers the ability to strategize when and where battles would take place.  

Pictured with a tank from the war

My CuChi tunnel tour guide demonstrates how to get in and out of one of the tunnels.  As you can see, it's a reallyyyy slim fit and in order submerge yourself all the way down, you must keep your arms above your head as the width of your shoulders is too wide.

My turn! My gradual progression of getting in and out of one of the tunnels...almost didn't make it if you can't tell!

During my trip to the CuChi Tunnels, I was able to see a portion of the tunnels that are still intact, as well as crawl (yes, crawl!) through segments of the tunnels that are considered safe...but safe doesn't mean big!  I was also able to see various forms of booby traps that the Viet Cong military used to trick the American soldiers, and let me just say, the Viet Cong were extremely intelligent!  The booby traps were virtually undetectable and very well-thought out and executed.  Throughout the tour while we were walking around the jungle area, sounds of real guns firing periodically would really startle you, so it felt somewhat authentic to what the soldiers would hear during war time.  

Exiting a tunnel after squat-walking/crawling through it for 100 meters

             Examples of some of the traps the VietCong army set up to capture American soldiers.

The CuChi Tunnels are not in use anymore, but they are one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City now.  During the tour, visitors are treated to some traditional Vietnamese snacks that the soldiers would've typically eaten and you can even try your hand at shooting an AK-47 for an extra fee.  

After the visiting the CuChi Tunnels, I was ready to see a lighter side of Vietnam, something not related to the war aspect of the country.  So another must-do while in Southern Vietnam is take a boat tour along the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's most important river and agricultural region where almost half of the country's rice is grown.  The Mekong Delta region has been occupied since at least 400AD, and to this day boats are the main mode of transportation.  It was such a relaxing day to spend on the river and be reminded how simply people can live without the distraction and reliance upon modern amenities like cell phones and other technology we can't seem to live without in 2016.  Along the Mekong Delta are floating markets with old ladies selling fresh tropical fruit like pineapple, sugar cane and coconuts, as well as people selling other produce, fish and goods.  
Vietnamese women working on the Delta

Riding down the Delta wearing my traditional Vietnamese rice hat.

Selling fresh fruit by boat on the floating market

At one point during the tour, my group's tour guide asked if anyone would like to take over the wheel of our wooden longboat and navigate the Mekong Delta.  I immediately volunteered for the opportunity to show off my boat-driving skills learned from the famous boat master himself, John Holland, who I personally like to call Grandpa.  

Captain Kylee at your service

Coconuts are heavy if you didn't know already

Fresh coconut milk

After a long day on the Delta, we stopped for some lunch which happened to be pho ("fuh").  Pho is one of Vietnam's most famous dishes made up of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat.  It is absolutely delicious and everyone should go out and try it.  I also got to take part in a cooking class with my tour group and help cook some of the side dishes to go along with our lunch. 

Getting schooled in the art of cooking Banh Xeo

Pho ("fuh"), Vietnam's famous noodle soup

Along with our pho, for those brave enough, we got the chance to drink a shot of snake wine.  Snake wine is a popular drink in Southeast Asia and China because of its believed medicinal properties, helping with various sorts of ailments.  Snake wine is made by submerging a whole, venomous adult snake (usually cobras) into a container of rice wine and letting it ferment for a few months.  Afterwards, it is safe to drink, despite the snake's venom being dissolved in the wine, because the alcohol deactivates the venom.  In case you're wondering, of course I took a shot of it.  I never say no to trying something new and interesting.

Snake Wine and other snake-related amenities available for purchase in Vietnam

Snake Wine

Just FYI, I don't only eat/drink gross, weird stuff.  Southeast Asia is home to various tropical fruit that isn't available in the US, so I always try to get some when I see it.  Also, Vietnam has amazing food so I would highly recommend it if you ever come across a Vietnamese restaurant.

Sugar cane juice and Banh Cuon (steamed rice cake served with fried shallots, cucumber, romaine lettuce, pork, and drizzled with fish sauce) 


Two types of Che (Vietnamese dessert); on the top is an ice dessert with jellies, ice and fruit, while the other pudding style, which resembled a parfait with apples and yogurt.

This sassy little Vietnamese girl whose family owned the yogurt-style-che restaurant (pictured above) never left my side the whole time I was at the restaurant.  She explained the menu to me in great detail (all in Vietnamese of course so I couldn't understand a word) and even gave me a Vietnamese lesson, making fun of my pronunciation on about every word. 

Vietnam is famous for it's spring rolls

My favorite Vietnamese dish: Bun Cha!  Rice noodles with a side of romaine lettuce and a bowl of pork in a slightly oily dipping sauce.

Markets, like the one pictured above are virtually everywhere in Vietnam.  My favorite fruit to buy at these markets are mangosteens (below).  Mangosteens are incredibly difficult to crack and open because of their hard shell, but the inside is so sweet, with a similar consistency to pineapple.  But you don't get much meat off them.

Lychee, a fruit found in Asia that definitely looks interesting on the outside but after peeling it, is soft and sweet on the inside.

Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich made with a baguette and topped with cucumber, tomato, fried egg, liver spread, cilantro, cheese and steamed pork. 

After spending a about 3 days in Ho Chi Minh and getting a few history lessons, I made my way to the coastal city of Nha Trang.  Nha Trang is known as a tourist destination for its beaches and overall relaxed atmosphere.    

Relaxing by the ocean

Not a bad view from my AirBnb

The realtor I rented my AirBnb from introduced me to a Vietnamese family who happened to be staying in the same condo complex as me.  They were so welcoming and gracious to me.  They took me out for lunch one afternoon and I ended up hanging out with them almost all day.  That night they even invited me for dinner in their condo where they had made a delicious home-cooked meal. 
Thanks for letting me tag along for the day!  I think they felt sorry for me since I was traveling alone, but I appreciated their generosity!

I splurged on a nice AirBnb, my now go-to website for finding accommodation. I had a great apartment with an ocean view and access to a private beach and an amazing pool.         

 Poolside at my hotel at sunset

My AirBnb in Nha Trang

After a few days on the beaches of Nha Trang, I headed back to Korea.  I hope I have the chance to visit Vietnam again one day because the people I've met there have been some of the kindest strangers I've ever encountered, and I also think it's impossible to go hungry in that country!  So, thanks for the wonderful memories Vietnam, until next time~

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