Once again, our best-laid plans to explore the beautiful country of Vietnam from the sprawling Mekong Delta in the south to the soaring mountains of the north were thwarted. Whereas in early 2020 the emergence of Covid 19 forced us back to the USA, this time the persistence of rain and gloom chased us off to sunnier climes.
“Check the weather forecast again” Susie pleaded.
“Rain for the next 10 days, with a possible break on Wednesday, same as 10 minutes ago” I (kind-of) patiently replied.
Da Nang is a lovely city about 600 km NE of Saigon, but it had been chilly, overcast and rainy for several days, with no respite in sight, and our sunshine-deprived nerves were showing.
“OK. Enough. Book a flight somewhere. Anywhere. As long as it is warm and sunny”. Au revoir, Vietnam, we’re off to Thailand!
Our original itinerary had us starting off in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) and gradually working our way up the long, narrow country to Hanoi and the northern mountains. Probably take two months.
Saigon was in a festive mood when we arrived on January 13th, preparing for Tet, the imminent Lunar New Year. In Vietnam, 2023 will be the year of the cat (differing from other Asian countries who are welcoming the Rabbit), and feline images were everywhere, surrounded by elaborate displays of flowers and decorations. Apricot blossoms (called hoa mai) are the preeminent choice for Tet around Saigon and their gorgeous yellow color blends beautifully with the vibrant red and gold decorations. Northern Vietnam prefers the pink hues of peach blossoms which brave the chill in late winter.
The flower markets explode with riots of colorful flowers, branches, potted plants and decorations covered with phrases wishing "Chúc mừng Năm Mới!" ('Happy New Year!') and “Cung hỉ phát tài!” ('Congratulations and prosper!'). A huge amount of their annual business is conducted in the weeks running up to Tet, as every family shops the stalls looking for the perfect arrangements of flowers to prepare their home for the New Year.
Our serviced apartment was in a busy area of District 1, and Tao Dan Park and the Independence Palace were a few blocks away. The main area of the park was closed when we arrived as Tet preparations were nearing completion. One block over was the Labor Culture Association, an arts organization that had a pickleball court – now we’re talking!
Walking around downtown Ho Chi Minh City is unlike any other in that you better watch your butt constantly, or you will get run over by a motorbike! And I don’t just mean crossing the streets, which are crammed with scooters, motorbikes and motorcycles of all shapes and sizes. They ride all over the sidewalks, cutting around corners to bypass traffic jams, and going in all directions! Let the walker beware!
But we learned to be careful and navigate the area, finding multiple nice coffee shops and cafes on every block. Arriving at the Labor Culture Association on our second day we found the pickleball court marked off in a busy area, with no net or any players present. Facebook queries had been unanswered. Pulling out our paddles and a ball, we started dinking to see if anyone showed up. Someone did…but not from the group. We were politely told to get the heck out of there. “Can’t you see the workers setting up all those chairs under the auditorium over there?” <sigh>
That evening we took a “Food tour by scooter” with a lovely brother & sister duo, where we rode behind them on their motorbikes and visited many different eateries: from popup stalls to 3 story restaurants. First stop was a small roadside shop that served San Choy Boy – lettuce wraps. They started with a lacy & crispy-thin egg “pancake” with sprouts and tiny mushrooms inside. Roll that up and wrap several layers of fresh green lettuce around, dip in a savoury sauce and enjoy.
One of my favs was a small roadside operation making Vietnamese Pizza, based on rice paper instead of dough, topped with egg, spring onion, cheese, and sometimes canned meat and finished with mayonnaise and sriracha. Cooked to crispy perfection over a box of hot charcoal, it is cut into quarters with scissors and consumed in a flash! Yum.
Fun Fact: the heading of the menu was “Bánh Tráng Nu’o’ng Dà Lat” which Google Translate Camera alternately said was “Dage 31 Baked Mooncakes”, “Grilled Sticky Barrel”, “Gears Bake 38 G” or “Dental Disease”! Some tough choices there, mate.
We had several delicious vegetarian courses at a very busy family restaurant. Of course, I can’t remember the names, but they were all different and very good. We finished off with tasty little tapioca custard treats – just the right sweet touch for a wonderful evening.
We did connect with another group of pickleballers, who were allowed to use 3 indoor tennis courts – from 6 to 8 AM on Sunday mornings! We went over and met some wonderful people who are trying to get pickleball going in Saigon, and I am sure they will make a go of it. Good times!
That evening we met up with Nana, who conducts walking tours of Saigon, and were joined by Rachel, Rob & Ollie from London. Nana filled us in on many of the historical sights in the downtown area, including the busy intersection where Thích Quảng Đức immolated himself to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. A beautiful monument has been constructed nearby in remembrance.
Nana also guided us to an unassuming doorway (before the commemorative plaques were installed) that opened into a couple of small, narrow rooms. A concealed trap door revealed a rough ladder leading into several underground rooms, connected through small tunnels to other parts of the city. These rooms had stores of maps, charts, weapons and ammunition and were a command bunker for the Tet Offensive of 1968 that was a turning point in the Vietnamese War.
Next was a walk through the Nguyen Thien Thuat apartment buildings, a large four story complex in District 3, built by the USA for soldiers in 1968. The building is in need of repairs, but the older occupants cannot afford better housing or do not wish to leave the area they have lived in for decades. The concrete stairways have ramps up the middle for people to bring their scooters inside at night and the walls and eaves are a jungle of black electrical wires and fuse boxes. The surrounding area has a plethora of street food vendors attracting a busy flow of patrons.
Now it was time to start our journey northward so off we go to the bus station to catch the “sleeper” to Mui Ne, a coastal village of 25,000 souls about 200 km from Saigon. Nicknamed “the resort capital of Vietnam” (by whom? The Chamber of Commerce? Lol), Mui Ne has been supplanting fishing income with tourism as so many small towns throughout the world have done. Their signature watercraft are called thuyen thung, but most people call them basket boats, because, well, that is what they look like – a round bamboo basket. The fisherman propels it with a single oar in a sculling motion to move it in a somewhat straight line from point A to B. Looked very impractical to me…but hey. A few had small outboards on them.
We stayed at La Marina, a nice little hotel a block from the water, which had a small pool and a good restaurant. From there we could walk on the beach or along the road into town. The beach was mostly narrow and not especially attractive and the water was murky. Much of the shoreline was fronted by condos or hotels who discouraged people from walking along the sand in front.
A 20 minute walk north along the two lane road, lined with shops and tiny food stalls brought us to the town center which was bustling with flower markets and food vendors preparing for Tet. I stopped at a stand to get some iced kumquat tea, which took the woman about 15 minutes to prepare, and was delicious! We also picked up some fresh oranges and a small New Years hanging decoration for our room.
The following day we joined a small jeep tour of the area with 4 others, stopping first at the Mui Ne Fairy Stream, promoted as one of the most magical nature walks in the area. We scooted down the small hill, removed our shoes and started up the stream, which was just a muddy trickle of water. (The water flow probably increases during the rainy season) The first part of the trek was unremarkable, splashing upstream through bamboo and palms, with cafes, trinket shops and food stalls here and there.
After 15 minutes the west side of the bank turned into impressive red and white clay hills rising 10 or 15 meters above the stream bed, with the contrasting lush forest on the other side. The size and color of the west bank changed as we splashed along, stopping to stomp around on a squishy mud bank that supported Susie, but my big feet broke through the surface into a seething bed of flesh-eating eels underneath! Haha – just kidding…it was kinda cool, though.
Our trek culminated in a miniature waterfall of about 3 meters into a shallow pool where everyone had their photo taken in various degrees of splashing and submersion. I chose minimal water contact, thank you very much. Muddy water, Southeast Asia….what could go wrong?
After grabbing some drinks back at the parking lot, our jeep continued out the main road leading north along the sea. Shops and hotels were replaced with pasture, rolling hills, and many tall wind turbines. The steady breeze off the water provides a viable environment for electricity generation in this locale.
30 minutes later we see hectares of sand dunes and roll into a parking lot filled with jeeps similar to ours, all painted in different brilliant colours. Our driver points us to the entrance where several guys are collecting money.
What? Apparently, our trip does not include riding on the dunes – only looking at them! If you want a jeep or ATV ride over the sands, cough up some more dong. Umm…ok. We are here, so the 4 of us opt for the jeep ride, which was quite exhilarating. The driver, who obviously has done this many times before, rips up the dunes, pops over the top, slides around sideways and careens down the other side while we are hanging on for dear life! It actually was fun, but very short.
Our final stop was at the “red sand dunes” to watch the sunset. Brownish orange might be a better description but they were still interesting. The walk to the best view for sunset proved to be further than expected and the wind had increased, blowing sand and grit everywhere. With clouds hiding the sun anyway we decided not to hang out and wait for the sunset, high tailing it back to the jeep and back to the hotel for a shower and dinner! Still, a fun day in Mui Ne!
Three full days was enough to get a good experience of Mui Ne so we said our farewells to the sweet sisters running the front desk at La Marina and got on board the sleeper bus for the 5-hour ride north to Nha Trang. The ride was uneventful, which is a good thing, arriving in Nha Trang around dusk and grabbing a GRAB to our new digs.
This time we are stylin’ baby! A gorgeous managed apartment on the 25th floor of the 40 story Empyrean Hotel, right across the street from the promenade and beach. Large room, huge bed & TV, glass-enclosed bath with great shower and a balcony affording a panoramic view of the waterfront and Hon Tre Island.
There was a coffee shop in the lobby, a fancy restaurant on the 39 the floor and an amazing pool on the top deck that went completely around the circumference, with a see-through section that allowed bathers to see the street 125 meters below!
We had just enough time to walk to a nearby café for some phở and make our way back through the crowds as New Year’s Eve was upon us and everyone was out and about. We had a ringside seat from our balcony to see the celebrations unfold as the streets surged with people in every direction.
The Tram Huong Tower, also known as Agarwood Tower, was lit up by floodlights with a beam streaming out of the top like a lighthouse. A large stage was installed directly across from us where various dancers and performers entertained the crowds as energetic music filled the air. Further down the promenade another area was setup for children with a large play area surrounded by small pavilions up on poles. Later in the week they had living "Samurai chess games" enacted on the stage to the delight of many spectators.
As midnight approached the pyro masters made their last tweaks in preparation for a fantastic aerial display. Their efforts were greatly appreciated, as the 20-minute barrage of color and sound was among the best we have ever seen. It was quite a change to be almost at eye-level to the exploding charges.
Nha Trang is a bustling coastal city with over half a million residents, well known for its beaches and diving with wealthy tourists and backpackers alike. The city is home to the multidisciplinary Nha Trang University; the Naval and Aviation Academy; a teachers' training college; Khanh Hoa University, as well as the Nha Trang Oceanography Institute. Alexandre Yersin, the French-Swiss bacteriologist lived in Nha Trang for 50 years. He established the Indochinese Pasteur Institute (now known as the Pasteur Institute of Nha Trang), devoted to researching the bubonic plague. A street in the city is named after him, and a shrine has been built over his tomb.
We spent the next couple of days walking around the city, admiring the TET decorations, unique combinations of old and new architecture, and of course sampling the wide variety of cuisine. Yummy breakfasts and coffees at Jungle Coffee and Geestar Coffee, good chicken (& tough lamb) at Greek Café, jus ok food and long wait at Little Corner Café, and tasty chimichangas at the Cactus. (Mex food for our last night in Nha Trang? Well, we had Chinese on our last night in Mex City. Lol)
I was disappointed to find that the world’s longest cable car running 3,320 meters from the mainland to Vinpearl tourist park on Hon Tre island was out of commission. The route is now covered with ferries and speedboats. We had no interest in the park, just the cable ride so – never mind.
Monday we took a long walk north, crossing over the long bridge where the Cai River emptied into Nha Trang Bay, and turned westward along the river bank. I noticed a sleek black sedan with an unfamiliar marque, which turned out to be a VinFast LUX – a Pinifarina design built on a BMW chassis, manufactured in Vietnam. Cool.
Our destination was soon visible through the trees on Cù Lao Mountain ahead: Tháp Bà Ponagar, a Cham temple from the 10th century. The word Ponagar means "mother country" in Cham language and this temple is associated with the goddess Thien Y Ana, who taught them to plow and sew.
The Champa were accomplished Austronesian seafarers, whose main activities were maritime commerce and transport that likely originated in Borneo or Sumatra, settling in central Vietnam, as well as most parts of SE Asia. Trade with Indian and other ethnic groups to the west introduced many religious beliefs, but the Muslim influence was strongest and most Chams converted to Islam.
The Vietnamese Chams were battered by the warring Khmer to the west, and the north Vietnamese people expanding southward. Their matrilineal kingdom was reduced to a small community near Nha Trang, with many fleeing to Cambodia. Today they are recognized as one of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam.
Tháp Bà Ponagar, also written as Po Nagar, consists of buildings and steles (markers) on three levels, dedicated to the Hindu goddess Yan Po Nagar (Thien Y Ana in Vietnamese). A group of free-standing columns of Mandapa architecture on the second level may have supported another structure in the past. The largest towers on the top level stand 23 meters tall, are mostly intact, their reddish brown stone piercing the sky.
Ornate jewelry, decorated with gold and precious gems along with ceremonial clothing is displayed in one small building, while another displays original and replicated statues, old photos and historical narratives.
Several Cham people were selling traditional wares and another was demonstrating calligraphy on New Year’s decorations. A group of dancers and musicians were performing songs that are typical of festivals that take place here every year in the third lunar month.
The location on top of the hill affords an expansive southern view, upstream Cai River to the west flowing to the Bay in the east and the skyscrapers of Nha Trang beyond. It was a beautiful spot and would be a peaceful place to relax – maybe when not so crowded with sightseers.
We have greatly enjoyed our time in Nha Trang, ringing in the Year of the Cat and exploring this busy vacation town of south Vietnam. But that travel alarm is sounding off again, which means it is time to get to the airport for our early flight to Da Nang. We made it through security quickly and found our way to the Orchid Lounge where we relaxed with coffee and a light breakfast before takeoff.
Taking a GRAB from Da Nang airport to the little Meliora Hotel, we passed the famous Dragon Bridge which features lights and pyro displays on weekend nights. Susie chose the room because it was close to the pickleball courts and we hustled ourselves over there shortly after unpacking. There were 3 courts in a small park: one had a badminton net, one had a portable pickleball net and the other had no net. We met Nat, Alex and a couple others for 2 hours of play. Felt good to get back on the court.
The sky was dark and rain was falling the next day, so we hung around the room until the rain stopped long enough to grab the net and get an hour of play in, before it again became wet and slippery. More rain the following day…it was time to change things up!
"Hey, look! It is sunny and warm in Chiang Mai, and there is an active pickleball group in the SW part of the city." We love Chiang Mai....Let’s go!