From the moment I arrived to the day I left, I couldn’t stop oggling all the Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit. And you know how I am – I rarely use any sort of profanity in this blog. But I need some word that encompasses barnyard critters, propane tanks, bowls of pho, four people and – yes, I’m serious – a grandfather clock!
I unfortunately did not get a shot of the grandfather clock being toted on a motorbike. It was like a shooting star – flashing across my field of view in a brilliant vision, then disappearing before I could so much as touch my camera. Fear not, though. I have plenty of other photos of Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit.
First up, we have this lovely family of four. These are somewhat rare. You’ll see trios on scooters all over the place. You really level up, though, if you snap a photo of a family of five on a motorbike. Good luck!
OK, this photo doesn’t have anything crazy being carted about on a motorbike. I just love all the riders and passengers being jovial and flashing me peace signs when they notice my lens pointing at them.
My older brother, JD, is obsessed with cars. Before he was old enough to drive, he yammered about cars and driving – nonstop. Today, he still takes photos of his rental cars and loves to show them to people (I still wonder if he’s just pranking us all). I wonder if this little girl is his spiritual sister. Because clearly, she can’t wait to be old enough to take the handlebar. And to take a photo of every motorbike she rides …
This is one of the first shots I took when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I was like “HFS, a mom and two kids on a motorobike!” Within hours, I learned that this is kind of a light load.
I don’t even know what this guy is carrying, but I know The Three Stooges would approve. I can just see Larry, Moe and Curly wiping people out with this horizontal load of … what? Sugarcane? Bamboo? Doesn’t matter. It’s awesome.
OK, this guy is rolling against traffic carrying a tray with a bowl of pho on it! And he’s not leaned up against the curb: He’s actually in motion. And he’s not spilling a drop! He’s killin’ it.
Check out that load of bananas! I seriously know people who carry less in their SUVs.
Can someone please explain what’s going on here? I have no idea what this rider is carrying. Not that it matters. When the load obscures the driver, you have attained Motorscooter Master Jedi status.
These are eggs. Lots and lots and lots of eggs. On a motorscooter. Good grief, this is awesome!
A guy carrying three cylinders of propane in the motorbike maelstrom of Vietnam is a Darwin Award waiting to happen. This rider is either crazy and soon to die, or he’s a brilliant daredevil who helps keep the country running.
I’ve saved the best for last. I may have missed shots of chicken, pigs and grandfather clocks being toted on Vietnamese motorbikes. But I DID NOT miss the headless, gyrating animatronic Santa Claus. The two dudes on this motorbike had Hanoi in stitches with their antics. The Santa would not have been as cool if he’d been fully intact. Seeing this made my trip to Vietnam much, much better. Thank you, Vietnamese Elves!
OK, have any of you been to a country where motorbikes are the backbone of transit? Where they haul as much as a typical American SUV? Tell me about it, and post some photos in the comments!
I know some of the people who see me often are probably tired of hearing stories about Vietnam. I packed a huge amount of fun and culture into my time there (and more than my fair share of delicious food). Even though it’s been a year since I was there, I still haven’t full gotten through all my thoughts and observations.
Yep,Â I’m far from done yapping about Vietnam. Today, I’ll let the photos do the talking. These are a few random Mekong DeltaÂ photos that capture the essence of the place in all its variety. Enjoy!
If you want to experience the Mekong Delta, there are plenty of tours fromÂ Ho Chi Minh City. Have fun!
So you’re traveling to Vietnam. You have your guidebooks. You’ve read the posts on the big travel blogs. Let me give you a reality check about Vietnam before you drown in travel brochure superlatives.
Here are a few things you really need to know about travelingÂ to Vietnam. I’m basing this on my own experience – just more than two weeks in late 2013.
I spent the first few days wondering if traveling to Vietnam was a mistake.
The Ho Chi Minh CityÂ traffic gobsmacked me. When I blew my nose, the snot would be sooty, like when I worked at my dad’s machine shop (yay, particulates!). Walking around on the sidewalks required navigating through a warren of parked motor scooters, sidewalk cafes and people trying to rent or sell you just about everything.
Here’s the good news: If you are at all adaptable, Vietnam will start to grow on you. The constant human contact will become more appealing, even as the pollution grows more appalling. Even months after I returned home, my home city still feels empty and distant to me. I still miss eating in places that have four-item menus and serve their meals on tiny tables.
Vietnam has some pretty parts, but --
You’ve seen the photos of Halong Bay Vietnam, and probably some from the enormous limestone caves. All nice. But -- for the most part, there’s a washed-out grayness to Vietnam. It might’ve been the time of year and the humidity and the pollution. It all combined to take the sheen off the colors. Yeah, you can recover some of it in a photo-editing program.
Bottom line: If you’re travelingÂ to Vietnam, don’t expect it to dazzle your eyeballs like Norway or New Zealand. There, the colors explode. In Vietnam, they make a mute little pop.
Traveling to Vietnam is, so far, my most interesting cultural experience.
From Dia de los Muertos to the Haka, different cultures beat me over the head with a cacophony of "I’m important, and you need to learn about meeeee!" It makes me tune so much of it out. If you’re travelingÂ to Vietnam, you’ll find a more subtle enticement to hooking your interest.
I found locals and guides less likely to hose me down with facts, and more likely to offer choice tidbits. Those tidbits were enough to get me to ask questions. Whether I was at the Cu Chi TunnelsÂ wriggling through tunnels or poking my nose into a Red Dzao wedding, I heard and saw things to spur my curiosity.
I heard you can be drunk and lazy if you want.
Okay, so you want a typical beach vacation. But you want it someplace exotic that will make you sound more adventurous than someone going to Puerto Rico. Gotcha. I hear that Nha Trang is the place for that. Russians love it, and they flock there for alcohol and sun; there’s even a direct flight from Moscow.
You probably underrate traveling to Vietnam.
I was talking with a couple of co-workers; one of them mentioned how he knew a couple that was trying to decide between going to Vietnam or France for their honeymoon.
"That’s a no-brainer," piped the second co-worker.
That pearl of wisdom came from someone who’s never so much as cracked open a travel guide about traveling to Vietnam -- and probably buys into the inflated romanticized notions of western Europe. Vietnam would be a fine place to spend a honeymoon, especially if you get away from the big cities. Your money will go far and let you level up on luxury. It can be very quiet and tranquil. And yes, the beaches can be spectacular. So don’t speak from a place of ignorance – learn about going to Vietnam before you rush to ill-informed judgments.
Plenty of writers like to call the Cu Chi TunnelsÂ "an underground city." But that’s just a facile throwaway phrase that trivializes nearly aspect of life in the Cu Chi Tunnels during a time of war.
Out of every site I’ve visited in my travels so far, I rate this as the most thought-provoking of them all. I can’t even say that I just had fun during my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It somehow feels more accurate to say that it was sobering, that it made me better realize what lengths Vietnamese villagers went through during wars against the French and the United States. I mean, people didn’t dig out three levels of tunnels stretching more than 100 miles for fun.
They created the Cu Chi tunnels to survive.
That said, I love mines, caves, tunnels – really, anything underground. And I’ve always wanted to fire an AK-47, which I also got to do at the Cu Chi Tunnels war memorial park near Ho Chi Minh City. It would be very easy to close your eyes to everything the site means -- to keep the experience at superficial level where it’s all about sinking into a foxhole, checking out booby traps and standing on the burned-out shell of an armored tank.
But we were fortunate that our guide from Saigon River Tour had bigger plans. He identified himself by the nickname "Big T." He was the most well-spoken and reflective of all the guides we encountered in Vietnam. I mentioned Big T in an earlier post; to recap, his father served in the South Vietnamese Army. When the United States left Vietnam to the communist government, men like Big T’s father paid the price in labor camps, or worse.
His father’s service, though, made Big T a great guide. Since we were in a small group that day, he had more time than usual to share insights with us.
Big T painted a grim picture of Cu Chi. First, he told us, the tunnels began as a way to fight the French forces in the early 20th century. He explained how the French weren’t even the worst enemy: That was the tunnel conditions themselves. No sunlight, no sanitation, no ventilation. But even that was better than the alternatives on the surface.
And it became even worse in the Cu Chi Tunnels when the villagers fought American forces.
They recycled everything, turning unexploded bombs and bits of shrapnel into their own war material. They expanded the Cu Chi Tunnels. They constructed traps designed to wound rather than kill: Big T explained that a wounded soldier took a few of his comrades out of action to remove him from the area and get treatment.
Big T urged us to look around the trees that form a shady canopy over the area. It didn’t look like this during the war, he said. The area was devoid of vegetation from carpet bombing and artillery fire.
And here’s the really interesting insight: Big T told us the villagers who were fighting so hard to stay alive didn’t think of themselves as communists. They just wanted so survive. What he said doesn’t quite square with the propaganda films made about the Cu Chi residents fighting American forces. And why were they fighting if they were far into what was then South Vietnam, and such a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City?
On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that people living a largely agrarian existence were really fighting for political ideologies. Is it more likely they were just propaganda tools? Probably so. Like so many things in Vietnam, I’ll have to do more reading to try finding the answers to my questions. It should help square what I heard from Big T and what I learned during a semester-long course about the Vietnam War when I was in high school.
Of course, every person’s view of the Cu Chi Tunnels will skew according to their background.
As an American, I’ve grown up with movies about the Vietnam War. I never really imagined having the chance to look at the war from this angle.
Speaking of angles, imagine what a guy who’s 6’2 has to do to get around in the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent a lot of time folded in half. And we’re mostly in the cleaned-up section that allows easier movement. This is the luxury hotel section, even when we descended to the third level. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic – and the dramatic tourist accounts of how "harrowing" it is to get around in the tunnels amuses me. The open sections are in great shape and very clean; we’re not in a combat situation, the lighting is more than sufficient. People get so hyperbolic; I promise, it’s not even that bad in the tunnels.
Bottom line, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is worth facing your fear of small spaces. It’s worth hearing the other side of a common story. It will make you think – possibly more than many other sites you’ve visited before.
Extra Knowledge for Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels
Skip the two-hour bus ride from Ho Ci Minh City to Cu Chi Tunnels and find a tour operator with a boat. Saigon River Tour was excellent, but you may find others in Ho Chi Minh City. The boat takes half the time and you won’t get jostled by potholes and bad suspension. You’ll probably miss out on a chance to see someone transporting a grandfather clock on a motorbike, though.
Wear long pants and real shoes. (What is it with tourists and flip-flops, anyway?) You’ll have to crawl in the Cu Chi Tunnels, so why get all scraped or sprain an ankle?
Bring some water. Even in the cooler months, the southern part of Vietnam is warm and humid. I travel with a hydration pack. And so should you, because dehydration can make your vacation suck.
Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.
"Hanoi is 15 years behind."
"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."
"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."
"They’ll steal from you."
We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.
And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.
Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."
So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.
As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.
The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.
There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.
And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.
There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.
Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.
But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.
In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.
Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.
Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."
There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."
I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.
Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.
It’s been one week since I’ve returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’ll have a lot to share with you about what it’s like to travel in Vietnam.
Obviously, a lot of people have asked "how was your trip?" It’s impossible to wrap this trip up with a sentence or two, so I just have to say "It was great." There’s a lot more to it, though.
Here are a few key thoughts from our travel in Vietnam, which I’ll dive deeper into with my future posts:
This wasn’t my most high-flying, adventure-packed vacation. But it was, hands-down, my most culturally thought-provoking.
Vietnam has some environmental problems, and I think it’s still possible to change course. Quite a bit hangs in the balance for it â€“ tourism, health concerns and the long-term status of resources like the Mekong River.
There’s a very interesting divide between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. People in the south have little good to say about the north. Oddly enough, it seems a one-way street: I never heard any HCMC-bashing in Hanoi.
Speaking of Ho Chi Minh City -- I was surprised to learn that quite a few people there still call it Saigon.
People often ask why we decided to travel in Vietnam. Well, it’s because we like the food. I can’t tell you how much pho I’ve eaten in the last few years. We figured that was as good a reason as any.
That said, I didn’t eat any pho at all in Vietnam. We learned of many great items that I’d either overlooked on menus here in the U.S., or they just haven’t made their way here.
As a kid who grew up in the Cold War and then saw the fall of the Soviet Union, it was really interesting to see the hammer and sickle in so many places.
Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere!
Suddenly, my home city feels empty and sterile â€“ and stripped of a huge percentage of human-to-human contact.
Well, that should give you an idea of the shape of things to come. And yes, I’ll have some concrete tips for planning your own travel in Vietnam. We learned a lot that will help you get even more out of your time than we did.
I haven’t said much about my latest upcoming trip. So here’s the news: This time, we’re headed to Vietnam. It will be our first time in Southeast Asia.
Sarah and I had some intense conversations about our possible destinations – Vietnam and the southern part of Australia. The good flight deals to Vietnam swayed us (tickets came to about $1,200 US each from Phoenix to Ho Chi Minh City, and then from Hanoi back to Phoenix).
So, how did I score such good flight deals to Vietnam?
I logged into all my existing frequent flier accounts to see whether they offered flights to the cities I wanted. Being based in the United States, my air mile accounts are with U.S.-based airlines -- none of which thrills me for intercontinental travel. But some share airline alliances with my favorite carriers like Asiana Airlines.
The options from Asiana Airlines were challenging. The layover was tight for the flight to Incheon, South Korea, that would connect to a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was also on an Airbus A330, which I don’t much like (see my review of Scandinavian Airlines).
The price I got while logged into my account with a fellow Star Alliance airline didn’t impress me.
Working My Flight Options
I usually avoid airline aggregators like Orbitz. I booked on one once, and didn’t have a great experience. But they’re great for finding other airline options you might not normally consider.
Here’s where I struck gold: I plugged my preferred dates into a Google search. I got a bunch of good flight deals to Vietnam cheaper than I could find logged into my frequent flier accounts.
Here’s what I came up with: Phoenix to San Jose – from there, we take a All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 to Tokyo Narita, where we connect to via an Air Japan 767 to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m very interested in the first outbound flights since ANA is a SKYTRAX 5-Star airline: The last 5-star airline I flew was Asiana, which is still the airline to beat in my book. On the way back, we have a Vietnam Airlines flight to Shanghai, where we have a United Airlines 787 back to Los Angeles and then on to Phoenix.
Good Flight Deals to Vietnam – and Easy Booking
The booking link for my flights took me straight to the United Airlines website, where having my account made short, easy work of the process. That means no sweating over frequent flier points – and the booking info goes straight to my smartphone. There, I can access it through the United Airlines app.
Should anything cause us to miss a flight, booking from an airline’s website has – in my experience – also made getting back on-course run quite a bit smoother.
Expect some honest reviews from the economy class after this is all over. We’ll have a lot of flying to do (including two trans-Pacific Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights), and I consider it a big part of the fun.
And yes, watch for some first-hand accounts of caving, hiking and exotic food-eating in Vietnam, too!