Trip to Vietnam, March 2006
 
 
comments and photos by Dimos
 
   
  With the weather warmer in the south than in the north, life starts in Ho Chi Minh City around 7am whereas in Hanoi about an hour and a half latter. By 9:30 pm all restaurants are closed! Ho Chi Minh City has better shops and services for the tourists compared to Hanoi.  
   
  The centre of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as "Saigon") is "reserved" for tourists or in other words protected from the chaos of the rest of the city. Nice streets, nice shops, bars with girls for the single businessmen etc. Besides the Jade Emperor Pagoda and some buildings build by the French there is not much else to photograph. I stayed at Dong Do hotel (dongdohotel@hcm.vnn.vn) and I recommend it.  
`  
  Near by are the underground Cu Chi Tunnels where Vietnamese lived while fighting the Americans. You get to see some body-tramps, entrances to the tunnels etc. There is 5min of excitement as you walk through a tunnel. At the end of the tour you can shoot with automatic weapons at a shooting range. I suppose men who have never been in the army will enjoy this. I have done enough shooting in the Greek army…  
   
  A day trip to Mekong Delta is a relaxing experience. The trip includes all king of demonstrations : cooking rice-paper, coconut candy, honey tasting, local music etc. The plantation is similar to the Golden triangle in the border of Thailand, Laos and Burma (same river).  
   
  If you want to get clothes tailored for you, you will find the best quality fabrics and tailors in Saigon. The tailoring cost is about $100 for a men's suit plus $100 for average fabric (you will never know the true composition of the fabric as it is not written on it). For the best fabric go to Cao Minh and expect to pay double the price. They can have it ready in 3-4 days.  
   
  In both cities, and all over Vietnam, motorbikes dominate the roads. There are 8,5 million people in Ho Chi Minh City and 3,5mil motorbikes plus of course the bicycles. Ten years ago there were only 100,000 motorbikes. The least expensive motorbike costs $300 and is made in China. Like in Cambodia, no one walks. Every body is either on a motorbike or bicycle. You can even see couples at the park sitting on a motorbike… While in equally developed countries in Latin America you will find "collectivos", privately run mini-busses, this concept does not exist in Vietman. There are just a couple of busses for a couple of routes.  
   
  Vietmanese, like the French who occupied them, do not eat during meals. Unlike Thailand, you can not find convenient stores in Vietnam. So if you want to eat between meals, your only option is to go to a restaurant and have a meal (for $2 it is less expensive than a sandwich in Europe…and much healthier!). There locals usually eat at restaurants set up on the street. The Vietnamese cuizine is closer to the Chinese (whereas the Cambodian and Thai are more related to Indian)  
   
  Compared to Thailand and Cambodia where Buddhism is almost the "national" religion, in Vietnam there is a significant number of Christians. Besides the prominent Christian Cathedral (Notre Dame) in Ho Chi Minh City, you can find churches in other cities. Looking inside the shops as you walk in the streets you can see small temples with either statues of Buddha or of Christ and Virgin Mary. You will also notice that in Buddhist Temples in Vietnam they do not take off their shoes as they do in Thailand. Also while in Thailand only Buddha is worshiped, in the Buddhist temples in Vietnam they worship some other Buddhist figures.  
   
  Nha Trang is simply a holiday resort. Hotels are being build overlooking the beach… Unfortunately the weather was bad so I did not try the Asian sea. Unless you plan to swim and the weather is good, there is no point stopping here. The beach is as long as the beaches in Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It would be interesting to see how active the beach is when the weather is good.  
   
  Hoi An is full with tailors that can make clothes for tourists. Interestingly, there are no factories in the area that actually make the fabric or the silk! There are some workshops making and selling wooden sculptures etc. A lot of shops sell silk scarves for women. Most shops however do not carry a stock and they want to sell you the scarf on display that has been collecting dust for months. Just ask to see if they have more colours… You can find the same silk scarves in Hanoi a couple of dollars more expensive. You can also find the same ties sold in Cambodia for $10 at the price of $1. But the designs are from another era. Some temples and old houses are a bit interesting. "My Son" is an ancient temple site near by…but if you have been in the Temples of Angkor, this one is much much smaller…  
   
  Hue is a normal city and a very nice one. At the Citadel you can pay about $1 to get yourself photographed as a king. There a lots of canals of water in Hue and a ride by bicycle around the city is extremely rewarding. Although a university town, everybody goes to bed by 10pm the latest. A visit here for a day is well worth it.  
   
  French architecture is preserved at its best in Hanoi, where also the sheer number of French buildings is endless. Also the streets and pavements in Hanoi are well-designed, the city feels like a French provincial town. On the other hand, Hanoi has a sad touch, perhaps due to the constantly foggy weather (due to the 15 lakes of the city). There is a nice lake in the center of the town near the old-town, the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh (Does anybody know any other country where people can see through a glass the preserved body of a dead leader?), the Temple of Literature, the Museum of Art... I highly recommend Heart Hotel hotel (with view of the lake: hearthotel@sg.netnam.vn)  
   
  If you are looking for paintings, Hanoi is full with galleries. There are both lacquer paintings and oil paintings. Paintings are of course much cheaper than in Europe. But are they worth the money? You should stop by the Vietnam Fine Art Association Gallery (16 Ngo Quyen, 3rd floor). I visited the studio of Dinh Quan, a very famous artist and the studio of Thach Phuoc from whom I bought a painting. I also bought a painting on carved stone. There are shops where you can also order a reproduction of any painting and you can have it in a few hours.  
   
  If you are a souvenir hunter like me, I strongly suggest that if you find something you like, you buy it and do not expect to find it in another city. There are plenty of shops selling things made from lacquer both in Saigon (a) and in Hanoi (b). The best designs are unquestionably in Saigon. Note that you will not find any shops selling lacquer things in Hue or Hoi Ann…
In Saigon they sell wooden replica ships up to a meter long for $20-$45. You will not find them in any other city.
In Hue they sell (see photo). Again, you can not find them either in Saigon or in Hanoi.
In Hoi Ann you have the greatest selection of silk scarves.
In both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi you can find very cheap backpacks with the logo of "Northern Face". I bought two. Time will tell if they were "counterfeits" or real ones.
 
   
  As a Vietnamese friend told me, there are no "better" or "worse" quality things in Vietnam. There are all the same. If you buy them in a small shop in the market you will pay half or less of what you would pay in a nice modern shop. I found the same exact silk table runner for $15 and $30…  
   
  France occupied Vietnam for 1850 to 1954. It is well known that compared to the other European nations, the French have a difficulty with the English language. Similarly even the professional Vietnamese have a natural inability to speak clear English. In general very few people speak English even compared to Cambodia. This is a huge obstacle in meeting local people and learning about the culture. During my trip I missed how in latin America with a mix of English and Spanish I could have conversations.

 
   
  Of course you can find lots of copied DVDs and programmes for $1.2 each, a bit of russian influence, new houses (a) (b) (c)  
   
 
www.magazino.com