All posts by Damjan

HO CHI MINH CITY

FINALLY IN VIETNAM

Vietnam was on our radar for a couple of years but then always something else emerged and we went to other countries instead. But this year the deal was made 🙂

As usual for the past few years we found that Qatar Air had the best combination of layovers and price so we took our flight from Zagreb (Croatia) via Abu Dhabi to Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon since you will hear both names while staying there?

Having fun on a plane

As we found out Saigon was the name adopted after the French conquest in the 1860’s, and it was then renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the North Vietnamese Army took over the South in 1975. While the city name is officially Ho Chi Minh City many people still call it Saigon, especially when referring to District 1 where we’ve stayed.

Ho Chi Minh City is served by Tan Son Nhat International Airport which is the largest airport in Vietnam. The airport is only few km from District 1 so it is relatively close.

Airport Transfer

There are no trains or transfer buses so Uber and taxi are the easiest way to get from the airport. Upon arrival go to the taxi rank and look for a Vinasun or Mailinh taxi representative. They are the most reputable taxi companies and you shouldn’t have any difficulties with them. Since we are a party of five we couldn’t fit in regular cab with our baggage. We booked the minivan ride online and everything went smooth so we were in our hotel in no time (Somerset Ho Chi Minh).

Ho Chi Minh City has a population of over 9 million people and reputedly more than 10 million motorbikes. In all of our travels we’ve never seen a city with so many bikes. While the traffic seems overwhelming at first sight there is a method to the madness and the traffic flows reasonably fast, even in peak hours at morning and in the evening. We’ve learned one simple rule which is: don’t stop walking when crossing the street. The drivers will made their way around you if you will walk but if you will stop in the middle of the street you will cause some commotion for sure.

Food:

When it comes to food, Vietnamese is one of the best cuisines in Asia and even though the city is modernising at a rapid pace street food culture is still an integral part of life. You can still find a bowl of  PHO noodles for 20,000 VND (about $1), or a BANH MI (Vietnamese sandwich) for 12,000 VND (about 60 cents). And with Saigon being the biggest city in Vietnam, food from all regions of the country are represented here.

Strolling around food stalls is really an experience

We had our dinner at the Ben Thanh Street Food Market. This is probably the best place to have your meals. There is so much variety and the prices are very affordable.

Street Food Market

Our first trip was to famous Cu Chi Tunnels, just about an hour outside of HCM City. They are a 200+ km network of underground tunnels used by the peasant residents of Cu Chi during the war. Composed of over 3 layers of tunnel networks, these allowed the guerilla fighters to disappear underground when being attacked by American forces. They lived with a plow in one hand and a rifle in the other, as we were told.

The tour starts with a (relatively) short b/w movie about the Tunnels and Vietnam War in general.

You can pay to shoot authentic guns from that era near the end of the tour. This was sort of an odd thing to do right after a tour detailing the horrors of war, but it led to a chilling and unintended effect: walking through the Vietnamese jungle passing improvised bamboo shelters and mannequin soldiers posed in dioramas, bouts of gunfire breaking the silence—it was easy to slip out of the moment and into a different time and place.

One of the traps

The tour kept us above-ground for the most part. We saw the small entrances that the fighters would use to enter and exit the tunnels, and we were shown replicas of the air holes they constructed to ventilate the labyrinth. Apparently, US soldiers grew wise to the existence of the tunnels and they would use dogs to detect the air holes into which they would pump poison gas.

The entrances to the tunnel are well secured now

After the tunnels, we went to the War Remnants museum. We particularly enjoyed the room dedicated to combat photographers from all participating nationalities. This place was worthwhile and quite sobering.

The War Remnants Museum is a place that you must visit to understand more about Vietnam. I don’t think any visit to Ho Chi Minh City will be complete without a visit to this museum. It shows how cruel humans and the war can be. How the Americans actually used Agent Orange to kill others, and as a result people in later generations were also affected and developed health problems. But you have to be very careful with the kids because pictures are as real and explicit as they can get.

On the front yard of the Museum you will find lots of Army vehicles, boats, planes and helicopters

The museum is still heavy with propaganda, which makes for an interesting look at the other side of the story, with posters encouraging civilians to ‘Destroy the American Infidel’ and talk of the ‘Puppet Regime’. The museum was actually previously known as ‘The American War Crimes Museum’ as recently as 1993, when improved relations with the USA led to a less accusatory name.

One of the most interesting places we’ve visited, during our trip, was the Reunification Palace, previously known before the war as the Independence Palace. It was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the war.

The centre of the allied command and the place where the North Vietnamese claimed victory in the American War.
In front of the palace

It also has historical significance as the site of the end of the Vietnam War, with the iconic photo of the tank rolling through the main gates on the day Saigon fell, on April 30th 1975. The palace itself is a real life time capsule!

Russian made tank that run through the main gate

The original palace had been bombed in 1962, and the new Independence Palace commissioned the same year. When the war ended in 1975, the palace was left exactly as it had been on that day. As you walk through the building, it really does feel like everybody has suddenly upped and left (as they did). The 1970’s decor is interesting in itself. You can tour the president’s office, the various official reception rooms, private quarters, cabinet room and ballrooms.

Bell H-1 Helicopter on the top of the palace
The view from the balcony on the top floor

By the way, everything in Ho Chi Minh City is quite affordable. We’ve traveled everywhere by Uber and the streets are also perfectly safe to walk.

Walking through the park
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam.
The Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh is a glorious example of French colonial architecture, perfectly preserved with as much style as when it first opened in 1891. This building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Inside the Post Office.

On our second day we were scheduled for a Svit’s cast removal in FV (Franco-Vietnamese) Hospital. He broke his arm twice on the last day of school back home. Thankfully everything healed fine and visit here was just a formality. But I really have to point out that if something happens to you while around HCM this is the place you want to be taken. The standards are truly Western.

Finally the the cast will go off

Mekong Delta visit:

On our last day here we went to see some rural parts around Mekong River. After 1,5h drive we’ve crossed the river on a boat. Then we proceed first on foot and then with horse carriage. We’ve learned a lot about the people of South Vietnam, tasted some rice wine, coconut candy, we took a small boat ride through the river canals and had lunch in a local restaurant in the end. It was obviously very touristy at some parts but at the end of the day kids loved it so it was worth doing it.

Boat ride across the mighty Mekong River
Rural Vietnam
Honey tasting
Making coconut candies
Rowing through the canals is a feisty business and the the competition is fearsome
We had such a fine time in the small boat

Four days in HCMC went bye really fast but we had to pack our bags and move forward to our next destination – coastal area of Mui Ne.

MALDIVES ON A BUDGET – WITHOUT THE KIDS

Maldives on a budget without the kids

You have to see them once in a lifetime, right? Especially if you know that they will eventually sadly disappear. What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you think of Maldives? Seclusion? Honeymoon? One of the best scenery and marine life in the entire world? Or is it the price that comes with this paradise?

Well, thankfully from 2009 you can see everything that you’ve heard or seen about the Maldives and you don’t need to spend a fortune on it. In 2009 Maldivian Government made a historic decision allowing locals to open their own guesthouses and restaurants to tourists.

Until then all the resorts were build on privately owned islands. For a night on luxury bungalow sitting on wooden stilts above the water with only breakfast you have to for example spend from 600$ and upwards. The numbers for All inclusive per day are going up as high as 8000$!

Now you can see everything that the expensive resorts are offering for significantly lover prices. But, there is always a but, isn’t it, there are two things you have consider coming to an local island. Since Muslim religion is the only religion in the Maldives and Maldivian people feel really strong about their beliefs, there is no alcohol allowed on the local island. No, not even a beer. And the second thing is being respectful to their religion which means that you can only swim or be in the bikinis on so called “bikini beach”. This is a part of the beach on the island where only tourist can go. And local kids will be spotted around here too of course. If you are a woman walking around the local island it is respectful if you have knee length covered legs and covered shoulders. For the man shorts and t-shirt would do. You should always be respectful and try not to make them feel uncomfortable. The locals on the other hand are very friendly and always willing to help.

We’ve made a decision to come here for our tenth wedding anniversary. Our two precious kids stayed and home this time. It was mommy and daddy time. After some research about lodgings, reefs, snorkeling options, distance and transport options from Male we’ve decided to visit Bodufolhudhoo Island. The Island is part of the Northern Ari Atoll which is renowned for its breathtaking underwater life. You can take a slow 6 hour ride with public ferry for as low as 6$ pp/one way or you can take a two hours speedboat ferry on route from Male to islands in Ari Atoll for 50$/pp per way.

Ibrahim Nasir Int Airport, Male
Ice Coffee before the two hours speed boat ride to Bodufolhudhoo
Relaxing speed boat ride with some amazing scenery

If taking the speedboat ferry, you first stop on Rasdhoo Island which is well known for the schools of Hammerhead sharks. The next stop is Ukulhas and after that you’ll reach Bodufolhudhoo Island.

Approaching Bodufolhudhoo Island

The Island is very small and you can walk around it in five minutes. It has four small stores (one of them is bigger- supermarket in which you can  find basics and also ice cream, chocolate) four guesthouses, coffee shop and pizza place. I would say by the looks of it, pizza place and coffee shop are not operational. The island also has a modern health clinic and pharmacy.

Nets where people rest during the day and in the evenings

We stayed at Yonder Retreat, a small cozy place with five rooms. The total number of tourists on the island, us included, was around 18. The local people are just getting used to having tourists around and they are very friendly. Especially the kids who always greet you and look at you with their wondering eyes.

Local boy on a bycicle
Resting before the snorkeling trip

The streets are narrow, covered with sand and the small houses are very basic. But still, all are made from concrete and stones. No wooden ones like in Asia.

Bikini beach

The bikini beach in kept clean by the locals, which sadly can’t be said for the rest of the island. There are plastic bottles, bags and other garbage laying around.

Pollution and environmental issue in general is a major problem in the Maldives.

On the Bikini beach with Nika Island Resort at the back
Football game is an every day event
Dos and dont’s

There are few high end resorts nearby that you can visit if you want to experience the other way of staying in Maldives. The nearest is Nika Island Resort just minutes away from the beach. They will charge you 35$/pp entrance fee for using their bar if you want to  have a beer or cocktail ( 5$ for small Heineken or Tiger Beer, 12$ for cocktails). You can go around the island or use other facilities for additional payment (pool, spa…). We decided to treat ourselves and spent few hours at resort enjoying cocktails & beer, watching sunset and just enjoying life.

Sunset cocktails at Bepi bar on Nika Island Resort

Waiting for our boat ride back to Bodufolhudhoo
Beautiful sunset on the Nika Island

Another plus of staying at the local island is that you can do all the trips like they do it at the resorts and visit the same reefs at significantly lower price. And if it is one thing that you will fall in love with here it’s the underwater life.

On the reef
On the reef
Abundance of tropical fishes

Snorkeling on one of the most mesmerizing coral reefs we have ever seen, island hopping, being alone on the remote sandbank, open water swimming with huge manta rays…all of this you can do from Bodufolhudhoo Island.

You can see all kinds of fishes, turtles, sharks, octopuses, manta rays, sting rays, corals (most of them sadly are bleached as a result of El niño weather incident at the Maldives in 1997-98), dolphins and during certain period in the year also the gentle giants – whale sharks.

The snorkeling here is really some of the most impressive we have ever seen. House reef is just off the bikini beach and full of all kind off fishes and turtles and even white tip sharks early in the morning.

House reef turtle

We also went on so called picnic island. It’s a small sandbar between Bodufolhudhoo and Mathiveri Islands. The boatman dropped us off with water and snacks and we were alone on it for next five hours. There is a great turquoise lagoon and the sand on the island is powdery soft. There is almost no shade on the island and Maldivian sun can be unforgivable so be prepared for that and bring lots of sun block and stay hydrated! We swam around, made lots of photos and even saw a baby sharks and sting rays frolicking in the shallow waters of the lagoon.

Approaching the Picnic island
Picnic Island with Mathiveri Island at the back
Uninhabited island
Picnic Island
Being alone on the Island has its benefits
Mesmerized with the colours
Looking back to Bodufolhudhoo Island

The island hopping to Mathiveri  island was nice too. The island is twice the size of Bodufolhudhoo and there are around 900 people living on it. It’s greener and they actually grow vegetables and papayas on it.

Mathiveri Island Port
Vegetable garden

It has a beautiful turquoise lagoon with the view of Gangehi Island resort at the back of it.

View from Mathiveri to Gangehi Island Resort

There is also a sunken floating bar (wooden sailboat) off shore. It went down two years ago and it’s still lying on the ocean floor. Floating bar is an elegant and legal solution for getting alcohol in Maldives if you are not staying at the resort. It has a bikini beach and house reef in front  of Casa Mia resort but in our opinion they are not as good as the ones on Bodufolhudhoo.

Lots of stingrays on Mathiveri Bikini beach
Mathiveri school
Narrow streets

Swimming with Mantas was one of he best experiences in our lives. We sailed from the island at 9am and went in to direction of Gangehi Island Resort. Our boatman knew exactly where to find them. And there were lots of them swimming around eating plankton. They are so elegant and gentle. If you don’t scare them off by vigorously splashing with fins, you can really come close to them. Swimming with mantas includes quite a lot of swimming and strong currents in some parts so it can be tiring but you forget all this the second you see this elegant creature. The sharks and eagle rays was also a surprising addition to this trip.

Swimming with Mantas is really a lifetime memory
Manta ray
Spotted Eagle Rays

In conclusion I have to say that staying in the private resort is, I imagine, for sure unforgettable experience but if you want to experience real Maldivian culture and life you should stay at local island.

Waiting for a speed boat back to Male
Arriving at Male Int Airport

 

So here is the breakdown for the expenses:

 

550$/pp for the Etihad tickets to Maldives (Ljubljana-Belgrade-Abu Dhabi-Male)

100$/pp return speedboat fare ((Male-Bodufolhudhoo-Male)

1100$ room for two on all inclusive basis with six trips included (six

35$/pp Nika Island visit

45$ drinks at Nika Island