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HOI AN – an ancient treasure in Vietnam

HOI AN – an ancient treasure in Vietnam

Train ride in Vietnam. This was one of our main goals to do while in this beautiful country. We’ve decided to take the night train from Mui Ne to Danang (HOI AN – an ancient treasure in Vietnam actually). We were really exited while boarding on a semi old wagon and walking to our cabin.

At the Binh Thuan Train Station
At the Binh Thuan Train Station
Night train to Danang
Night train to Danang

Then the small size of it almost killed our enthusiasm 🙂 On one of the bunk beds we laid all of our luggage and other 5 were for us. The space was so small that only one at the time could stand up and change clothes.

DANANG NIGH TRAIN
No more room 🙂
Danang nigh train
Snack on the train
Danang night train
It was almost impossible to sleep on such a smal bunk bed for me

But as it turned out this only helped us to have more fun and few beers didn’t hurt too.

Danang nigh train
Saigon Beer always comes handy

We’ve reached Danang train station at 6am and from there we still had a good half an hour to our destination – Lama Homestay, just on the outskirts of Hoi An town. The Homestay was really amazing (Lama Homestay) and our hosts were the kindest ever. The place is set in the middle of rice fields a good 15 minutes bicycle ride away from the old town. The bike rental was free of charge and it was a great bonus too.

hoi an lama homestay
In front of Lama Homestay
lama homestay Hoi An
Our neighbours

Lama Homestay Hoi An

Lama Homestay Hoi An
Homestay in the middle of the rice fields at the back
Lama Homestay Hoi An
Friendly owners dog
Lama Homestay Hoi An
New friends

Ancient town of Hoi An – UNESCO Heritage site

Hoi An, once a major Southeast Asian trading post in the 16th and 17th centuries, is basically a living museum that houses old-town architecture. Some notable heritage buildings include Chinese temples, a Japanese-designed covered bridge, pagodas, wooden shop-houses, French-colonial houses, and old canals. Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in December 1999.

Hoi An
Japanese Covered Bridge

Hoi An
Quan Cong Temple, Tran Phu Street

It’s Riverside is the best place to be at night as the area is lit by quaint and old-fashioned lanterns, making it an atmospheric and beautiful spot to stroll with the kids (just keep an eye on them because there are a LOT of people here).

Hoi An
Hoi Ann streets at the evening
Hoi An
Walking through the ancient City of Hoi An

There are basically three different categories of things that you can buy here. First is souvenirs, second being clothing and the last is food, both western and Vietnamese.

Hoi An
If Anthony Bourdain visits your place than lines are a must

The souvenirs are nothing special, since offerings are limited in diversity throughout the country (hats, lanterns, wooden artifacts…). Hoi An is better known for its tailor shops, which mostly service personal orders so you have to wait to have yours shirts and dresses made to the perfect fit. Most designs are traditional Vietnamese in nature, with some offer contemporary twists and touches of foreign taste. You can also present your own design for your dress as well.

Hoi An
Fruit at the market stalls
Hoi An
Thai pancakes at the Nigh Market
Night Market
BBQ-ing our own dinner at Anh Boa BBQ Hotspot

Things to do in Hoi An:

Countryside bicycle tour

Your day will be filled with discovery and surprises while doing this trip. We’ve crossed immense rice fields, learned the secret of making the famous woven mats that serve as beds, observed boat builders while making the boats that wind down the river, crossed floating bridges on bikes, tried to row and navigate the amazing fishing basket boat and lots more. The kids absolutely loved this trip.

Hoi An
Boat ride to one of the islands around Hoi An
Hoi An
Working on the rice field

Traditional basket fishing boat
Reminiscing about days events 🙂

We’ve also visited a family distillery where rice wine has been produced in the same manner for generations. Not far from the start of our journey we made a visit to a local family making Banh Dap using the traditional method. These small savory rice flour bowls are a common breakfast staple in the countryside. We continued riding to one of Hoi An’s villages, stopping at a family home to learn about the traditional family houses. Our host was nearly 90 and fought in the Vietnam-American war.

My Son

Less than 50km from the picturesque port city lies a collection of Champa ruins nestled amongst the mountains in a geological basin of the Quang Nam province in Central Vietnam.

My Son sanctuary became known to the western world in 1885, when French architect, archaeologist and art historian Henri Parmentier  and his colleagues began excavating and documenting the site. They found 72 monuments within a semi-circular, two-kilometer wide valley. Nowadays  there are 8 groups of temples found throughout the complex, and 71 standing monuments.

My SOn

Even though compared to the iconic Angkor Temples in Cambodia, that we’ve visited last year, My Son is not quite as extraordinary. However, as the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom, it is one of the most significant Cham sites in Vietnam.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 due to its historical and culture significance, the Champa city of My Son Vietnam was an important complex that was occupied from the 4th to the 13th centuries.

Unfortunately My Son was heavily bombed during the Vietnam / American War and received substantial damage after the Viet Cong moved in and used the complex as a military base.

At the entrance of the site is a decent museum, filled with artifacts, detailed information in Vietnamese and English, and old images of the temples before the war.

If there is one advice that we can give you it would be to take water with you, take A LOT of water with you because it gets very hot out at the ruins, and there is no one selling any inside the sanctuary. Bottled water, ice cream and other refreshments can be bought near the ticket office.

Beaches of Hoi An:

Hoi An’s beaches are a major attraction in their own right and a great complement to the old town – especially during the hot humid months of summer. So on our last day before departure we’ve decided to do some beach bumming. After discussing this idea with our hosts they recommended An Bang Beach, around 6kms from downtown. This is the place to be for past couple of years since previous favorite Cua Dai beach, was washed away in 2014.

An Bang welcomes you with deck chairs, palm frond umbrellas and with a great range of restaurants serving everything from local seafood to western dishes. The ocean makes a perfect playground for the kids with its shallow and warm waters with not too big of a waves. Just be careful for rip currents out of the well-marked safe zone.

An Bang Beach

If using the umbrellas and deck chairs you have to pay for it or be prepared to be constantly reminded that you have to order a lunch per chair used while there. After a while we got really tired of it and after – not great at all – lunch, we decided to call it a day. Our advice is to carefully choose the restaurant/bar in front of which you will spend your day. Based on the reviews we wanted to stay at Soul Kitchen of Deckhouse but sadly they were fully occupied so we were forced to choose something else instead.

Also don’t expect turquoise blue water like in Indonesia or Philippines because you will be disappointed. For us it didn’t matter a lot since our next stop was Redang, Malaysian Paradise Island with the waters and sea life to die for.

Dinner for our friends birthday at Lama Homestay
Well deserved gift

One can see why Hoi An is such a great place to explore or simply relax for a day or two. On our way to airport in Danang to catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur we easily came to a conclusion that our best time in Vietnam was spent here.

Coffee at the Airport
Boarding time at Danang Int. Airport

MUI NE – Vietnam

MUI NE – Vietnam

Bình Thuận Province – South Central Coast Area of Vietnam

It took as an easy four and a half hour ride with one stop to get to Full Moon Village Resort near Mui Ne – Vietnam in Suoi Noc Bay,  where we’ve stayed in lovely two bedroom villa (Full Moon Village) This area has arguably the best beach around Pan Thiet. .

Saigon – Mui Ne minivan ride
Our Villa at Full Moon Village

Mui Ne - Vietnam

Mui Ne used to be a quiet fishing village about 200 km east of Saigon. Now it is a bustling beach resort, which attracts Vietnamese weekenders from Ho Chi Minh City, Russian, Korean, and Chinese tourists, and a few backpackers on the Vietnam Open Bus Tour trail.

Shopping at the COOP Mart at Phan Thiet

Mui Ne is mostly known for kite surfing and has become pretty popular tourist destination over the years.

Kitesurfing (credit to Emma Ghebaru)

We came to Mui Ne for beaches, for sand and sun, and to relax after the hustle and bustle of Saigon. As it turned out the rain at that time made our favorite part of Mui Ne visit to be the Red and White Sand Dunes.

There are two areas of sand dunes which you can take a tour to, along with the beautiful place called the ‘Fairy Stream’, which make for a pretty incredible day amongst landscapes we never expected to see in Vietnam. The White Dunes are 25 km northeast of Mui Ne, between Bao Trang (white lake) and the sea. The Red Dunes you’ll find just east of the fisher village of Mui Ne about 10 min from Full Moon Village with a local bus.

Keeping the inside during the rain was virtually mission impossible

Red Sand Dunes

The Red Sand dunes are a real site to see. We visited the site between the spells of rain and it turned out just perfect. In a scorching sun I can’t really imagine how we would cope with the kids running barefoot. Children of the fisherman work the dunes as mini tour guides and will even show you how to sled down the dunes. From the moment you’ll step on the edge of the road at the bottom of the Dunes you’ll be surrounded with them trying to get you to pay for the “sleds” (basically a piece of plastic to sit on). We bargained down the price and off we went.

Mui Ne Fishing Village view from the Red Sand Dunes
Sliding down the Dunes

Thankfully it rained before so we could run barefoot

It’s a relatively quiet place that has a laid-back, breezy quality to it. Even in peak seasons you’ll see only a modest amount of tourists pottering about in their bathing suits and flip flops. Mui Ne’s residents are mostly comprised of hospitality workers, sleepy security guards, tour guides in their jeep tour mobiles, and fishermen. Wake up early enough and you can catch the townsfolk on their way to the dock.

Resorts and bars have a monopoly on the sea view, lining up the entire beach one after the other. Here it’s a matter of choosing the best bar for your buck to access the beach from. The beach is also accessible from little alleyways that opens from the main road – but these aren’t so obvious so you can try and just walk through the bars if you “brave” to.

While staying here we endured three days of on and off rain so besides hidding from mosquitoes (there were really a LOT of them in our Villa and around the greenery of the Full Moon Village) we spent most of our time either on the beach or in the pool or running from the rain).

Mosquito nets are a must during rainy season
Alone at the pool

Anyway the beach was clean and well maintained and the kids loved running around or playing in the waves.

Hello!
Ba(b)ywatch
Mui Ne - Vietnam
SUP is UP

But of course don’t expect the clarity of the water like in the other SEA countries like Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia.

All in all we had a good time here but everything on the account of our kids having fun despite constant raining and tons of mosquitoes. Otherwise if you are not a kite surfer you can skip this place and head further North or South.

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.