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Travelling through Vietnam
Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam), Aug-06-09 / Aug-26-09

Vietnam has surprised us in a positive way. We are now in the last week of our visit to this country, and our experiences are in general positive. The expectations we had weren’t set too high, because we had heard negative stories from vast numbers of people who travelled to this country before. But we were lucky to experience it in a different way. Of course, we also had some less positive experiences; they tried to rob Ivonne, taxi driver adapted their taxi meters so that they run up faster and bus and boat ticket sellers refused to take us unless we paid several times the going price. But despite that, we have positive experiences from our journey through Vietnam.

We started our journey through this extensive country in the far north. The capital city of Hanoi was one of the highlights of our visit to Vietnam. Parts of Hanoi are still the Asia we dreamt about. After spending one and a half years in South-east Asia now, we found that Hanoi and Phnom Penh are the two cities that still have that South-east Asian feeling that we were looking for (see also the article, photo impression and video about Hanoi). But it is changing fast. So if you also want to experience it, be there somewhere in the coming years or you will be too late. After our visit to Hanoi, we took the bus eastwards to the city of Haiphong. Haiphong is the starting base for visits to the island of Cat Ba, which is a less touristy starting point for visits to the world famous Halong Bay. It is the bay where you can see hundreds, or thousands, of limestone formations rising from the emerald waters of the Tonkin Sea. However, when we arrived at the harbour of Haiphong, there was nobody who wanted to sell us tickets to Cat Ba for the going price. All the sellers agreed with each other to charge foreigners a price that is three times the normal price. In that case there are two options. Or you pay the rip off price, or you say ‘get lost’. Often we pay the overcharged price, but not in this case, so we decided to skip our visit to the Halong Bay. Many people will say that we are crazy, because it is probably the once in a lifetime chance to see this natural spectacle. And that is exactly the reason why these ticket sellers can demand prices that are way too high. But we didn’t. The main reason was the fact that we didn’t want to be the tourists that just pay what they ask, but minor other reasons were the rainy weather and the fact that we heard that every visit to Halong Bay is a very touristy experience, especially in the high season; something we didn’t looking forward to.

Filming a street scene in Hue in central Vietnam
Our next stop on our journey to southern Vietnam was the town of Ninh Binh. This town is not on the typical tourist trail, which means that it receives only a fraction on the travellers. The immediate result is friendlier people and more reasonable prices. In the areas around Ninh Binh it is also possible to see limestone formations, but is a much smaller setting, which makes it a ‘small’ alternative for Halong Bay. But that is not a problem for us, because it is not about the things that you see, but about the experiences and memories that you get from it. And that was perfect in Ninh Binh. We set out early, so for the first part of the day we had this beautiful landscape all for ourselves (see also the video: Around Ninh Binh).

Our next destination was the city of Hue (pronounced ‘hway’). This former emperors’ city still has an interesting palace area, and some temples and pagodas that survived the fighting of recent history. For the bus journey from Ninh Binh to Hue, an estimated travel time of 14 hours, we bought tickets for a normal bus with seats. But when we entered the bus, we saw no seats but only berths. And the size of the berths was for short Vietnamese people only and certainly not for tall westerners of two metres. We travelled more than five hours southwards with this bus, but by the time we reached the city of Vinh, we had enough of it. We asked the driver to stop and got off with the idea to catch a normal bus to Hue first thing in the morning. Hue is by the way a nice city, but as often, way too touristy. Every single day, there are thousands of tourists in the city, all visiting the same limited number of sights, which makes them very crowded. Many travellers don’t have problems with it, but we prefer to visit places that are less crowded. We also rented bicycles for one day to visit some less visited sights in the area around town. Hue was for a matter of fact the city where we had the hotel with the best price-quality during our trip of more than two years so far. The nice room with air conditioning, a bathroom with hot water, wireless internet and a computer with internet connection set us back only ten US-dollars a day (= € 7.15). And if you know that the hotel was also very clean, is located in the centre of the city and has very friendly personnel, it is the best hotel we had so far. We do not often advertise hotels, but this one certainly deserved it: Hotel Binh Duong 1.

With the whole family on the motorbike in Saigon

A short bus ride brought us to the little town of Hoi An. Hoi An is one of the limited places in Vietnam that is not destroyed by the war fought here by the Americans. The result is that the traditional houses of the town are still preserved. But there is one major drawback. All the travellers that visit Hue, also visit Hoi An which equally makes it a major tourist spot. If you walk through the historic centre of the town, you will only see foreigners and shop keepers who try to make a living from the visitors. Ninety-nine percent of the old houses are now café, hotel, restaurant, souvenir shop or other tourist-related business. The authenticity is completely gone, which makes it more an amusement park than a historic city. It is nice to see it for a day, but that’s it.

We decided in Hoi An to buy an airplane ticket for the remaining stretch to Saigon (now officially known as Ho Chi Min City). The travel distances are vast in Vietnam, which makes flying an interesting alternative, especially if the stretch you are going to cover with the flight is not so interesting. And for us that stretch isn’t that interesting, because it hosts mainly crowded beach towns. So, it was an easy decision to take the one hour flight from Da Nang to Saigon with Vietnam Airlines, a journey that would take by bus approximately 24 hours. We stayed one day in Saigon, and subsequently we took a local bus to Can Tho, a city in the heart of the Mekong delta. Of course, there are also tourists in the Mekong delta, but the numbers are much and much lower. We visited some nice floating markets in the area around Can Tho and took the day after the bus to the city of Rach Gia, on the western coast of the Mekong delta. We used this city as the starting base for our visit to the small and relatively unknown tropical island of Phu Quoc, where we still are. This is the kind of places we like. It is still a low key travel destination but it is absolutely beautiful. Yesterday we hired a motorbike to explore the island and visited small fishing villages where time stood still last decades. But that will change. The island calls itself already the future Vietnamese Phuket, relating to the über-touristy famous city of Phuket, or infamous if you like, in Thailand. For the people of Phu Quoc it is probably an interesting future if you take the related income into account, but for travellers like us, an absolute disaster.


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