Here is the second part of my Vietnam diaries which are supposed to summarize the second half of my one month trip from Northern to Southern Vietnam. As you know by now, my entire camera gear got stolen in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City and since I also lost all of the pictures documenting the second half of my trip, I decided to do this two-part compressed recap. You can find the first part here. Apart from the creative commons pictures from Flickr I am using again, I can this time at least use some photos taken during a thrilling side trip in Dalat. It’s been an interesting and very diverse part of my trip with a lot of recommendable places. However, let me start with the least likeable of them ….
1| Nha Trang – Am I in Vietnam or Russia?
The first place we reached after leaving picturesque Hoi An was Nha Trang. I had already heard stories about the city on the Southern Coast of Vietnam, a long 9 hour bus ride South of Da Nang. It was supposed to be very touristy, very busy and interestingly very Russian. Since I like neither of these, we decided to only spend a day and a night to recover from the bus ride and then head straight into the Da Lat highlands.
Na Trang features everything a regular tourist could wish for. A nice beach, bars and fancy restaurants, a wide range of hotels and a fair share of night life options. For us it was good to relax a day at the beach, do nothing and eat some Western food (I’m talking Texas style barbecue ribs) for dinner. Something you just have to do every once in a while. But besides that, I didn’t find the place too appealing. To the contrary, the overwhelming presence of Russian tour tourists, usually found in large groups, loud and obnoxious, and the fact that the Vietnamese seemed to have totally adjusted to this invasion, was yet another reason to not spend too much time here. If shop signs and menus are in Russian and vendors approach in Russian, you know there is something wrong. No, it was time to leave, time to leave for a more real Vietnam.
2| Dalat – Canyoning and doing the Easy Rider
The city of Dalat is located about 1.500 meters above sea level in the southern part of the Central Highlands. It’s year round temperate climate gave the city the nickname “City of eternal spring” and was the main reason for the French to make it their preferred getaway from muggy and humid Saigon back in colonial times.
Nowadays it is sort of an outdoor capital with first class rafting, hiking, rock climbing and canyoning to choose from. We heard good things about the latter and booked a day with Groovy Gecko Tours. After an hour of instructions in abseiling techniques and safety, we approached our first abseil down an 18 meter cliff. I was excited and a bit nervous at the same time since I had never done abseiling before. But it was great; the adrenaline rush got me hooked instantly and the first abseil made me want more. After another, more difficult one, and two rock waterslides it was time to tackle the highlight of the day. A 25 meter waterfall which we were about to go down right in the middle of it.
Step after step I let myself down the super slippery rock face, getting splashed and soaked by the roaring waters of the fall. At one point it was even hard to breath with all that water so I tried to just concentrate on not slipping. At around 6 meters above the water we had to stop. It was time… time to release the line and drop flat into the water. Letting go and trusting the words of the guide that the water is deep enough was probably the biggest effort but also made for the biggest rush. We finished off with a daring 8 meter cliff dive and another abseil. It was a great day out and definitely made me a fan of canyoning.
Another highlight Dalat is famous for, are the so called Easy Rider Tours. A local guide takes you on the back of his motorbike and takes you around the countryside and to selected sights. Having become a motor biking enthusiast, the idea sounded fun but I prefer riding myself. We wanted to give it a shot and arranged a bike for a day, a map and tried to get some info about the sights of the region. What sounded a bit difficult at first, actually worked out perfectly. We found every single sight on our list and didn’t get lost once. However, part of this success has to be credited two too Easy Rider guys who we befriended on the way and then followed to two of the harder to find locations. The region has a lot to offer, from big coffee plantations where you can sample the famous Dalat Weasel Coffee, a huge and roaring waterfall, temples, markets and a whole bunch of traditional craftsman’s workshops.
The most interesting stop was probably a silk weaving workshop where silk threads were produced out of the small cocoons and then woven into fine cloth. All of this made for a nice day trip, a lot to see and explore and the distances were not that great either. To top things off, you can visit the Dalat nightmarket which is great for street photography. If you can’t ride yourself, go with an Easy Rider, otherwise it is easily doable by yourself. My tip for accommodation is the Dreams Hotel as it has a hot tub and sauna on its rooftop which is actually nice after a long day in the outdoors of Dalat.
3| Saigon – My worst nightmare coming true
I guess part of it is my own fault. After having travelled for already 10 months without any serious incidents, I might have become a little bit careless. Advice by the hostel personnel and fellow travelers to be extra cautious in Saigon should have been a fair enough warning. And I thought I was cautious but apparently not cautious enough. I was out in the central park when my backpack with my entire camera gear in it got stolen. After that incident, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate and enjoy my stay in the city anymore. Even worse, for the first time I felt vulnerable and I caught myself looking over my shoulder a bit too often. The outlook of not being able to take pictures anymore with the highlight of Angkor Wat in Cambodia still to come didn’t make it any better. The only silver lining was that it happened towards the end of my journey and that it made for a valuable lesson.
Apart from that, Saigon is a fascinating city. It is huge, it is busy, it is loud, it is pulsating and it is typically Vietnam. I based myself in the city’s old town which is criss-crossed by labyrinth like alleys and lanes. Despite the fact that this quarter is also backpacker central, it is still home to the locals and very authentic. Especially at night the place springs to life and becomes a street photographers dream. One evening I roamed the little alleys and courtyards for three hours and came across so many unique scenes it was incredible. Some of the pictures I took (and then lost) were probably among the best I ever took. The other highlights in Saigon are closely related to the country’s recent history being the Vietnam War. A tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Vietcong for a meager 5 USD is something almost every tourist does here. The War Remnants museum is also worth a visit although it had a slightly too propagandistic appeal to me. The exhibition about the use and consequences of Agent Orange and another one about war photography are very interesting though.
4| The Mekong Delta – Finally coming home
In order get out of Saigon and into the Delta, I booked a day tour which took me to My Tho, Ben Tre, and finally Vinh Long. I usually don’t opt for tours like that since they are usually too hectic, too crowded and too organized. But it was a cheap way to get into the Delta Region and got me closer to my final destination Can Tho, home of the famous Mekong Delta floating markets. That being said, the tour wasn’t even too bad since it allowed for a first glimpse of the Delta, its people and their daily life. The Mekong Delta, formerly part of the ancient Cambodian Khmer kingdom, is the region where the mighty Mekong river flows into the South China Sea through a vast network of distributaries. Arriving in the Mekong Delta somehow felt like finally coming home. The river had by this point accompanied me for a long time as I travelled through Laos and parts of Cambodia, never losing sight of the so called “Mother of water”. And it sure made for some great memories and interesting stories. Although I was bound for Cambodia and still had some weeks ahead of me, it already seemed like the end of a long journey. An end that was actually not too far away.
After the tour I had the driver drop me off at Vinh Long from where I flagged down a minivan going to Can Tho. The city of Can Tho is in the heart of the Delta region and a center for trade and agriculture. The local produce, rice, tropical fruits, coconuts and vegetables all get traded at the unique floating markets of the area. It was late when I arrived in Can Tho and I wasn’t quite sure how to best explore the markets. I was having a cheap plate of Viet street food at the riverbanks, reminiscing about my journey, when I was approached by a friendly lady offering me to come along with her to the markets the next morning. Apparently she had a small boat and two more travelers coming along. Since it was last minute, I was able to negotiate a very good price and decided to do it. The next morning we left early before sunrise. The small motor boat slowly chugged downstream, passing small villages which just began to come to life. As we made it to the first market named Cai Rang, we were greeted by a lively hustle and bustle. Traders were offering their produce on their fully loaded boats, people were bargaining and vendors on smaller boats were selling coffee and snacks, skillfully maneuvering around the larger vessels. Although the markets have become quite a touristy affair, I can imagine that life a couple of hundred years ago was probably not much different. To get back to Can Tho, our boat lady took us through the small canals and to a small village, allowing for another authentic glimpse of life in the Delta.
5| Travel tip: The hidden gem of Chau Doc
Chau Doc is right at the border to Cambodia and most people just stop there for a night, if at all, to board a boat across the border. I decided to spend two nights in town since I had the experience that underrated border towns can be actually very interesting. And this was also true for Chau Doc. I rented a motorbike to explore the countryside for a day and boy was there much to see. The trip took me to close by Sam mountain with marvelous views all the way over to Cambodia and a temple on top, I stopped at a beautiful monastery where I was invited for coffee by two monks, I checked out ancient temple ruins by the Khmer kingdom, I drove through lush green rice paddies, stopped by an authentic market and went into the Tra Su bird sanctuary where I was invited for drinks and food by the rangers. At Sam Mountain I had met to young Vietnamese guys who also toured the area by motorbike. We talked for a while and exchanged e-mail addresses and on my way back to town, sun was already setting, I coincidently drove past them again. We stopped, all of us very surprised to meet again, and they handed me two little presents wishing me farewell. You just have to love Asia and moments like that made me forget the camera loss at least for a while.
Besides the fact that I ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere once and that some spots where a bit hard to find, it was a really good tour because it seemed like no tourist ever makes it there. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even see one tourist during the whole trip.
Last thoughts ….
As diverse as the places of this journey were, every one of them was unique and interesting in their own way. If it wasn’t for the camera incident, I would be nothing but enthusiastic about it. But it still kind of overshadows my Vietnamese experience. Arriving at the Mekong Delta was a bit melancholic as it marked the end of an important of my journey. It is a river with so many facets, having a different name in every country it flows through, and there, in Southern Vietnam, it finally reaches its final destination.
I was a bit skeptical about Southern Vietnam being touristier than the North but it was still very enjoyable. I guess you just have to pick the right places and right activities. The South is relaxed, it seems to go with the flow of the river and at the same time it is a region where “old” is constantly merging with the “new”. Very interesting, very unique but you need some time to fully appreciate it.