Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vietnam (21-26 November 2015)

Pat and I have returned from a short trip to Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City and the island of Phu Quoc). The main part of the trip was arranged by Eco Adventures here in Singapore. They arranged our flights on Vietnam Airlines and the hotels we stayed in. We arranged our own tours using Viator.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Our flight left Changi Airport at 1:15 PM for the 2 hour flight into Ho Chi Minh City, or the name most residents call it - Sai Gon. (It's interesting that most signs spell it as 2 words, while I remember it from the news as a single word). We are flying into Ton Son Nhat International Airport, which was known as Ton Son Nhut Air Base during the war. We are heading into the country that dominated the news while Ray was in college, Pat was in HS, and for a number of years after. A place many of our friends served in (some did not return). We both had strong feelings about our visit. Hard to put some memories, photos, and news reports out of our minds.

Visa Letter
In order to get into Vietnam, we needed to carry with us a letter from the Vietnam Immigration Department, which cost us $10/each before even getting our airline reservations. Having that document allowed us to pay $45/each to get the visa once we got to immigration in Saigon. However, we missed the window for picking up our visas and, instead, went directly to the immigration line. After waiting for quite some time, and presenting a copy of the letter, we were informed we needed to go to another window to get the visa. Once we got to the visa window, we found out we were missing passport photos. For another $5/each, we had our pictures taken, waited another 20 minutes and finally got our visa. Ah, the joys of traveling!

We were greeted at the airport by a guide and driver, who took us to the Golden Central Hotel. It is nice not having to figure out how to get to the hotel and have someone waiting with our names on a sign. The hotel was nice and the location was good.


Sai Gon

View from our hotel room on a not-to-busy traffic day.


Once we were settled in our room, we went for a walk down the street the hotel was on.

One of the things included with our trip was a dinner on the Floating Restaurant of Sai Gon Cruise. We actually finished our meal before the boat started to move down the river. The meal was so-so, the boat crowded and noisy, filled with huge numbers of Chinese and Japanese tour groups - each having their own section of the boat. This was not a very good introduction to Saigon and we would have been much happier skipping the entire evening. The only good part was an occasional view of the city as we returned to the dock.

View of the city from the Saigon River


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Today we have 2 tours scheduled: (1) a half-day tour of the city and (2) a food walk at dinner time. Both of these tours were found using Viator (as we had done for our Tokyo and Melbourne trips).

We thought the tour of the city started at 8 A.M., but of course was wrong - we were picked up at the hotel at 1:30 P.M, which was going to be a problem since the food walk started at 5 P.M. in front of the Opera House. We were the only two people on the tour, so we asked the guide to please drop us at the Opera House in time for the evening tour. Ah, the joys of traveling.

Since we had the morning open, we decided to take a walk to see some sites on our own, try to find a geocache at Notre Dame Cathedral, and find one of the brew pubs that had been recommended by some friends. Found the Cathedral and the geocache. Stopped for Vietnamese coffee and a desert at Cafe Runam. Then found our way to the Pasteur Street Brewing Company (the beers were very good). Pasteur street is named for Louis Pasteur, the French chemist know for vaccinations, fermentation studies and pasteurization. "The Institut Pasteur in Ho Chi Minh City is a Vietnamese national institute initially created by the French in 1891 under the name Pasteur Institute - Sai Gon, in 1975 renamed the Institute of Epidemiology, and in 1991 given the current name".

Motorcycles and scooters were everywhere, including on the sidewalks.
If a motorcycle thinks traffic is too busy on the streets, they just move to the sidewalk. They often cut around corners using the sidewalks. This can be most disconcerting when they come up behind you.

Another problem with the sidewalks: they are often used to park motorcycles, cars and to serve street food. All-in-all, not always a pedestrian-friendly place.

Delivering balloons

Approaching Notre Dame Cathedral

Notes left on the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral

The geocache at Notre Dame Cathedral

City Hall

Ray having Vietnamese coffee and a sweet morsel.

At the Pasteur Brewery. Pat has a Passionfruit Wheat Ale (she can actually taste the fruit); Ray, Jasmine IPA. Notice the small glasses - it's early (and we wanted to sample more).

Round deux at the Pasteur Brewery. Saigon Saison (Pat) and Chocolate Stout (Ray).

Street scene from the brew pub.

On our way back to the hotel, we walked through the Ben Thanh Market, where we bought coffee for a gift and Pat got a new purse.


Inside the Ben Thanh Market

The Deluxe Half-Day Saigon Sightseeing Group Tour, was a good tour with stops at the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace (formerly known as Independence Palace and made famous at the end of the war when news footage showed tanks breaking through the gates), the Jade Emperor Pagoda or Phuoc Hai pagoda, Notre Dame Cathedral and Handicapped Handcrafts.

Our guide, Mr. Hung, was a hoot. Very expressive and knowledgeable about the city and the war. Occasionally, he was hard to understand when he got rolling on a topic. We enjoyed the tour.

Our guide Mr. Hung

American planes, helicopters and other equipment around the grounds of the War Remembrance Museum. In the foreground is an F-5.

This part of the War Remembrance Museum had been a prison.

A sign in the Agent Orange room at the War Remembrance Museum. The war is always referred to as "the war of aggression" and the South Vietnamese soldiers as "American-puppets". 

Reunification Palace

The Opera House

We were dropped at the Opera House for the Ho Chi Minh City Street Food Tour with Dinner, along with 3 other American visitors. It had been raining since we left the Reunification Palace on the last tour, and neither of us brought our umbrellas - but off we went with our tour guide, Hanh (born in the Mekong Delta, but educated in Sai Gon).

Our first stop was a "stall" on a sidewalk in one of the neighborhoods where most tourists probably wouldn't wander and certainly wouldn't order the food. The vendor setup an umbrella and brought our a small table and even smaller chairs. The food, rice and barbecued pork, was okay but nothing special.

The food vendor where we stopped for our first sampling of street food.

Eating our street food in the rain. Our guide, Hanh, is in the red shirt.

Our our next stop was in a market area where there were stalls selling all kinds of things, including food. Here we stopped for Bot Chien (deep fried rice powder cake with chicken egg), Com Tam (broken rice). The Bot Chien was really good. Our guide walked across the alleyway and got us some Che Khoai Mon (Sweet Taro Pudding with Coconut Milk) to try. Pat loved this; I thought it was too sweet.

Bot Chien (rice flower cakes being fried)

From here we walked past another vendor where we picked up Banh Mi Thit (Vietnamese Sandwich with Grilled Pork). These we took the sandwiches to a coffee shop where we ate them along with iced coffee. The coffee shop was on the 4th floor of a former warehouse. No elevators but was an interesting walk up, seeing many different shops and businesses tucked it along the way.

After the coffee shop, it was off to the market near our hotel for a beer (333) and goodbyes all around.


Monday, 23 November 2015

Today we go to Phu Quoc. But first, we went our for another walk, but in a different direction than we had gone before.

The first interesting place we walked past was the sculpture garden in Tao Dan Park. Across the street, in the another part of the park, many groups of people were doing their morning tai chi. (While preparing this post, I find there are many more things to explore in this park than the little bit we actually saw.)


Cool sculpture

Another sculpture

As we turned the corner, we were greeted with people on their way into work. Many places on the side of the road (but actually in the road), vendors had set up to sell food to the passing motorcycles and cars.

People heading to work on a Monday morning

Food "truck" setup in the road so people can get something to eat on the way to work. Their version of the drive thru window.


We were picked up and escorted to the domestic terminal at Ton Son Nhat Airport for our 45 minute flight west to Phu Quoc.



We were again greeted outside the terminal with our names on a sign and assigned to a reserved cab to take us to our hotel, the Sasco Blue Lagoon. The hotel, like its website needs updating. It is somewhat rundown. The grounds were a mess as they appeared to be working on them. The beach furniture needs painting. Our first room was not something we were willing to stay in (the shower just stuck out of a wall with no enclosure). We complained and were moved to a better room. The second room was bit better.

Once we were settled into our new room, we went for a walk on the beach. Pat was very disappointed in the lack of of shells.

As dinner approached, we decided to walk into Doung Dong Town. Our goal was the Night Market. Walking through the market we reached the mouth of the Doung Dong River. Kids were playing on one of the beaches, fishing boats were anchored in the river and street food was being served. What a fun place.

Fishing boats at the mouth of the Duong Dong River

Entrance to the Dinh Cau Night Market in Duong Dong Town

Fish display at one of the restaurants/markets at the Night Market

Found a place to eat at one of the restaurants in the market. The fish was fresh and the sauces good.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Today will be a full-day tour of the island. Our guide and a driver picked us up at the hotel at 8 AM. We were the only people on this tour.

The first stop was the Sim Wine Factory, where they make wine from Rose Myrtle flowers. These wines are generally sweet.

Sim Wine (Rose Myrtle Wine)

Next was the Australian Pearl Farm. One of the people working there explained the difference among the various shells and the types/colors of the pearls. Each oyster takes 8 years to produce a pearl and each can be used 3 times. Pat got a nice pair of ear rings.

One of the pretty oyster shells at the Australian Pearl Farm

Next stop was a recently built Buddhist temple, the Ho Quoc Pagoda. Not a lot of tree cover and it was getting hot. This temple is still a work in progress and really not that interesting. However, it is located on the side of a hill with good a view of the water below.

Our guide at the Ho Quoc Pagoda

Finishing one of the statues at the Ho Quoc Pagoda

Our next stop was the Coconut Tree Prison. The prison was originally built by the French and then expanded significantly by the Americans. There were at least for large compounds, but only one has been rebuilt and used as a museum. The exhibits are very much focused on the mistreatment and torture of the prisoners. Most of the guards employed by the Americans were from South Vietnam and are referred to as "American puppets".

We were certainly happy to leave this site.

Outside the Coconut Tree Prison

Entrance to a tunnel the prisoners used to escape the prison

The exit of the escape tunnel

The next stop on our tour was the Phung Hung Fish Sauce Factory. The many vats, shown below, were filled with anchovies and salt and left to ferment for a year. The resulting product is then mixed with water to varying degrees and marketed in 3 versions (45, 40 and 35 grams/liter, with 45 being the highest quality). The sauce is used in cooking and as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, etc.

Vats used in making Fish Sauce

Fish Sauce tasting

After the fish sauce factory, we drove to Sao Beach for lunch. The road was extremely rough and we are lucky to still have functioning kidneys. The restaurant has no electricity other than what is provided by their generator.

Surprisingly, many tour buses bring their visitors to this place. Not sure why, since the road is so bad and the food is only okay, and the beach waters were filled with seaweed.

Lunch view of Sao Beach

Relaxing after lunch at Sao Beach while Pat searches for shells

After lunch, we headed to the north part of the island. The first stop was the Tranh Stream Waterfall. This waterfall and creek is another popular spot for tour groups. Some of the tours include a picnic lunch along the creek, and we saw many groups eating along the way. In terms of waterfalls we've seen around the world, this one is not very impressive (certainly not as nice as the one we went to in Bali, a few months ago).

Cooling off in the water below Tranh Stream Waterfall

Next, it was off to the Phu Quoc Bee Farm, where they are trying to save the bees that have been disappearing from the island. There have been 2 predators: humans and a larger bee that kills the honey bees. We met a couple from France who were volunteering at the farm for several months. They had seen the movie, More Than Honey, and were moved enough to quit their jobs in France and volunteer here in Phu Quoc.

Entrance to the Phu Quoc Bee Farm

Some of the bee houses

Cafe at the Bee Farm

Sharing some of honey with the bees

Very close to the bee farm, we stopped at one of the many Pepper Farms, where we saw the pepper berries, seen below. After wandering among the plants, we stopped at the farm shop to sample several varieties of the pepper (black, red and white).

At the Pepper Farm

The final stop of the day was Cape Ganh Dau, a small fishing village. From here we could see Cambodia on the horizon. Phu Quoc in the past had been part of Cambodia, before being taken over by Vietnam.

Cape Ganh Dau (in the distance is Cambodia)


Kids having fun in the water

A Styrofoam raft

The tour bus dropped us back at the hotel, but since it was time for dinner, we walked back into town and the night market. Before picking a restaurant for dinner, we found a vendor at the far end of the market making tapioca waffles. Not only were they delicious, it was fun to watch them being made.

Tapioca waffles at the Phu Quoc Night Market


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

We decided to relax today. So down to the beach to swim, read and relax. Of course, that can only last so long, so it was back toward the town in search of a geocache. We never located the cache, but the view from the top of the hill where the cache was supposed to be located was nice.

While on the hunt for a geocache, we looked over Duong Dong Town

Lizard near the geocache location

Found a place to eat lunch and then back to the hotel for awhile.

Later we went back to town to the Nha Ghe Phu Quoc Crab House, a new restaurant (2015) run by a Vietnamese-American from the Atlanta area. He was born in Phu Quoc, but his family escaped to the U.S. at the end of the war when he was still a baby.


Thursday, 26 November 2015

Today we headed back to Singapore. We enjoyed our short trip, good food, friendly people, and loads of memories.



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