Vietnam, February, 2020
We arranged through the hotel to be picked up by a car at the airport for $22. Because prices are low in Southeast Asia one can indulge in far more personal service than elsewhere. I had booked five nights direct with the O'Gallery Premier Hotel in the old quarter, near Lake Hoan Kiem at $60 with a very nice breakfast. We scheduled with the hotel a private food tour for our second night--$35 pp for 2.5 hrs. I don't think we were with the famous "original" tour company, as our price was much lower than listed in the guide books. However, the tour was just fine, stopping at about 6 hole-in- the-wall eateries and sharing a dish at each. Sanitation at these places seemed minimal but neither of us suffered any after effects. I originally thought we would then know which places to go back to—wrong, never could you work your way back in the warren of streets.
We strolled around the lake at dusk—don't know why this is a big deal in guidebooks. What is a big deal is trying to cross the streets since the hordes of motorbikes pay only cursory attention to traffic signals and feel perfectly entitiled to going the wrong way on one way streets. It truly is a scary experience but we saw no accidents. We did a lot of walking as we weren't too keen on riding in a cyclo (bicycle pedicab) or flagging a taxi. We walked by Ho Chi Min's tomb but didn't go in, saw the train street but were blocked from walking on it, saw the Taoist Quan Tuan Temple, and visited the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison. The prison was interesting with lots of information on its use first by the French to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries and then by the Vietnamese to hold captured American pilots. However, the film about how humanely the pilots were treated was full of lies and propaganda. On another day we walked to the Temple of Literature—nice enough and worth the very modest $2. entrance. In all though, Hanoi is not much to visit in our book. We did not get to visit the night market as it had been closed to limit virus risk.
Starting with Hanoi we had not made any plans because what we wanted to do was weather dependent—a cruise in Ha Long Bay and trekking in Sapa. I got some leads from the hotel travel desk on which cruise companies to investigate and after much work at the computer decided to book direct with Indochina Junk (Dragon Pearl cruises) a 3 day, 2 night cruise to the less visited but neighboring Bai Tu Bay. $431 for 2. All the 600 boats licensed to sail the two bays leave from the same port in Ha Long City and have very similar routes and activities depending on how long the cruise lasts. Our boat, the Dragon Pearl 2, had only 10 cabins, and we thought this a good idea with all the coronavirus possibilities. In fact not even all those cabins were full. February is shoulder season for this area. The weather varied from lots of mist and haze in the mornings to a bright, and quite warm afternoon for kayaking and our beach barbque. We were quite lucky—the weather the week before was cold and rainy. Our boat's propeller stopped working on the second day, so some plans had to be changed, and we really hardly got out of Ha Long Bay. But we were still in a very uncrowded area and they fixed the propeller on the second night. This cruise was definitely worth the trip to Hanoi and I am very glad we did it. Our fare included transportation in a luxury van from Hanoi, which is a long 5 hour ride away. All the vans and buses stop at a village to see a water puppet show—too long, but a good lunch, but you don't actually get to see the village. You also stop at what has to be the largest gift shop in the world. Marble carving, silk embrodery, stone carved boxes, silk clothing, food, really more than you can take in in 30 minutes (though they stop there also on the way back for 20 minutes.) I did buy some scarves and a little dress. My granddaughter had requested a red silk dress. Don't know if they were "real silk", but inexpensive and probably a better chance of being silk than buying at a market or street shop in the tourist district.
We had hoped to go direct from Ha Long City (which is a huge resort area with literally thousands of condos and apartments being built all on speculation) to Sapa. But you have to come back to Hanoi. There are 3 options to get to Sapa or Sa Pa, night train, day or night bus, luxury van. If you take the train, you then have to take another hour on a bus up the mountain. The bus is the cheapest but vans are actually cheaper than the train and get there in about 6 hours. We didn't fancy the sleeper train though it saves money on hotels. We figured we wouldn't sleep much and didn't want to buy all 4 berths in order to have our own space, so we wernt back to the hotel for one more night. This time booking through Hotels.com as they had a cheaper rate. I think about $53.
[This is the point in my writing that I left off and we flew back to California. We are now settled in our daughter's driveway in Menlo Park just south of San Francisco. We have a 24 ft Sprinter B+ RV, which though small by US standards, fits us just fine. Unfortunately, further world travel or even US traavel looks unlikely for quite a while. I will try to not let that color the rest of my write up.]
We booked our trip to Sapa through Indochina Junk/Dragon Cruises also. This was probably a mistake as I think the $650 for two was overpriced for luxury van, 2 nights hotel, 2 lunches, and 1 1/2 days of private guided trekking with extra transportation and entrance fees. However our guide, May, was excellent and tailored our walking to my knees; her English was excellent. Though we didn't want to book the tour in advance because of weather, I should have done my research in advance. Sapa is way up in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border. The last hour of the drive whether in van or bus from train station, goes up a two lane mountain road. Sapa is at about 5000 ft. The buses are good at navigating it but with all the mist and low clouds it can be nerve wracking if you don't care for that sort of drive. I mostly didn't look out. Our hotel was the Chau Long Sapa Hotel. We felt it only okay; it was a little older but had a balcony overlooking the valley, butut also a lot of houses where the street noise continued to about 11 pm and later on the weekends—also the roosters really got going early in the morning. The breakfast though was a huge buffet plus cooked to order eggs, etc. The first morning we were the only ones there and they made a buffet on our table—enough food for about 6. Tourism is really taking a beating from the coronavirus even though Vietnam had only 16 cases and had strictly quarantined the area where they were, 24 miles from Hanoi. Sapa is a really sizable town now, all devoted to tourism. We were about 1/2 mile from the center which is filled with hotels and hostels, and I'm sure noisy as well.
Many people choose to have a home stay in one of the surrounding ethnic villages that allow tourism. We had lunch our second day at one such. Lunch was fried rice and oranges. The toilet was western syle which surprised me. There was a separate shower room. There were two tourist bedrooms—one downstairs with privacy curtains and one in a loft above. All had mosquito nets though it was too cold at this time of year for those creatures. All in all fine I guess, and very inexpensive, but not to our taste. At our age we can skip a lot of the "authenticity" which isn't authentic anyway.
Sapa is all about trekking. To us, having retired from Montana, and trekked in New Zealand, Nepal, and Europe—trekking is not the right word at all. Most of the walking is on paved roads, broad trails and local footpaths between the rather large villages and through the terraced rice paddies. Much of what we did was shared with cars, motorbikes, and touts. Even with a guide we were constantly asked to buy things from little children and women. Exhausting. We enjoyed talking to May who was certainly willing to answer all the questions we had. We did the easiest and most touristy trails, and May arranged for us to get car service back up to Sapa to cut out a lot of the road walking. We thought it worth what we paid and our time—would we recommend it to others? Only if we could explain what it is really like, not trekking in the wilderness, not going to authentic ethnic villages, but still the countryside is beautiful—but often obscured by low lying clouds. We lucked out with a sunny afternoon and morning, but weather there is very unpredictable at least in February. I was able to buy a replacement for my broken cane look, collaspsible hiking stick for $6. And in fact it was even better than the one I had purchased in England as it collasped short enough to fit in a carryon. Hiking poles are not allowed by TSA in cabins but because these poles had cane type ends I was able to take it into the cabin on 10 different flights.
The vans leave early from Sapa and we had ours drop us at the Hanoi airport. Unfortunately, that meant a 5 hour wait for our flight to Hue on Bamboo Air. We planned on using our Priority Pass to go the lounge—not. Bamboo Air would not let use check in until two hours before the flight. The flight was only $43 pp.
Hue (pronounced "Whey")
We arranged with the hotel for an airport pickup for $13. The Alba Spa Hotel was $60 a night, a little high, but there are not a lot of hotels in the historic district; booked through Hotels.com. We stayed 5 nights which turned out to be way more than needed to see Hue, even doing it slowly. The hotel was nice with an excellent breakfast buffet. Only bad thing was no blackout drapes—a first on the trip and we had two huge windows. Our room was directly across from the police academy. It was a bit fearsome to watch them training in the courtyard every day for riots, etc. The weather at the end of February was getting very hot, 95, so we tried to get an early start each day. We walked to the Imperial Palace, about 1.5 miles, and bought an entrance ticket for it and two of the out-of-town Imperial tombs for $13 pp.
Much of the palace grounds were destroyed during the war, but much has also been restored. Basically it dates from the 1800s into the 20th century. What I found most interesting were all the photographs lining the long corridors of the Imperial family engaged in various ceremonies. Vietnam's culture is heavily Chinese and there is great veneration for ancestors and the change to the Communist regime did not change that. It was not like in Cambodia where Pol Pot killed all the teachers and professionals. All over Vietnam we saw evidence of a great pride in intellectual and professional studies. Young people who earn advanced degrees often return to their villages for a ceremony of gratitude and accolade. So different from the US where intellectuals and professionals are sometimes distrusted. We probably spent about 90 minutes at the palace and the heat was getting so intense we succombed to the cyclo tout who followed us for 10 minutes. His final price to return us to the hotel was $4—we ended up giving him much more. By the way, we hated the ride. Two in a cyclo is one too many and though most of the city is flat, the occasional rise he could barely manage. We were passed continually by cars, trucks, motorbikes, other cyclos—most unnerving, while the on coming traffic swerved around us.
One morning we decided to walk to the market. It was huge, hot, the narrowest walkways of any we have been to, and the most touts. People were getting more desparate as the tourist numbers dwindle. One woman followed us for at least 20 minutes, hoping we would stop and buy something and she could convince the shopkeeper that she had brought us there. We were really too hot to even look at anything plus this market was way more of a resident's with virtually no souvenir type stuff. Normally, that might have made it more interesting but not this day, and we left after about 30 minutes. We had lunch at the DMZ Bar. It has been around for 30 years and is popular with backpackers and western travelers. Even though it is Vietnamese owned, the decor is all about the war. The ceiling is a painted map of the DMZ zone with a minature helicopter landing upside down. The door pulls are AK47 rifles, the outside painted in camo. The food was fine, but the whole thing made us very uncomfortable.
Our last day we hired a driver through the hotel to take us to the two Imperial Tombs—there are 3 in the area, but we guessed correctly that two would be plenty to see. The first was Minh Mang, and it is in a pretty park setting but not much to see in the pavillions. The second sprawls up the side of a mountain but has an interesting and ornate pavillion at the top, but lots, and I mean lots of stair climbing. I think the driver for the two hours or so was about $26.
The hotel has a huge hot tub, very hot, and cold plunge that guests can use for free from 4 to 7. I also had a very nice hour long massage which comes with hot tub, shower, etc. for $24. Overall, we weren't that impressed with Hue, as you can probably tell.
We had read that from Hue to DaNang you must either take the train for the views of the rugged and isolated coast or take a van over mountain pass for other great views. We had the hotel buy our train tickets, first class reserved seats for $8 pp. They assured us they would be on the coast side of the train (they weren't), and that we needed to buy in advance. They were right about the second part. We bought two days in advance and the cars were completely full even with the downturn in tourism. If you are there at a normal time, buy a week in advance if you can. However, we were not really impressed during the 2.5 hr train trip with the coast. There are about 7 or 8 coastal views—pretty, but if you have been to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, the Oregon coast, the Monterey coast in California, even the coasts of northeast US, not to mention any coast in New Zealand, you won't be impressed. We had arranged through our hotel in Hoi An for a car to pick us up at the DaNang train station for the 45 minute drive-$20. We waited 30 minutes, no one showed, so we just took one of the many cars standing by for $15. It is a lovely car trip. He went a little out of the way so we could see the famous dragon bridge in DaNang and was happy to drive at a reasonable speed the rest of the trip. The public beach in DaNang is long and lovely. Then a 5-10 mile swath of resorts and condominiums, most still under construction, most on the beach but some across the road.. During the drive, you also pass the marble mountains, or what's left of them. They have been quarried for centuries and some of the output of the quarrying and sculpting is arrayed in dozens of shops with statues, fountains, shrines, made of the snow white marble for sale. Really, if you are looking for a beach vacation home and don't mind a 17 hour or more flight, this is probably one heck of a buy.
We had made a 5 night reservation through Booking.com to stay in the historic area at a historic hotel, Ha An, $36. It had good reviews, lots of character, nice pool, walking distance to everything. But breakfast was a very mediocre buffet, the dinner we had in their restaurant was awful—first pizza in my life I couldn't eat. The furniture in the room was heavy, old fashioned Vietnames style, mattress worst of trip (mattresses had been excellent so far), and our first run in with mosquitoes. House rules included no doing laundry in your sink and no outside food or drink. What? They did apologize profusely for the no show driver and told us our trip back to DaNang airport would be free. We spent our first day in Hoi An changing plane reservations to move our US return date from March 26 (which is tomorrow as I write this) to March 3rd. We were supposed to go to Ho Chi Min City for 4 or 5 days, then take the bus to Phnom Penh for a couple of nights, a week in Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, then fly to Bangkok for two nights before our flight through Tokyo. But the virus outbreak in Italy was heating up, flights were being canceled in Asia, it was so hot, and we really weren't that interested in HCMC or Phnom Penh. We spent 3 days at Angkor Wat in 2009 and though I wanted to go back, especially when we knew that it wouldn't be crowded. The weather forcast was temps about 98. Just not worth it.
We really did enjoy the one full sightseeing day we had in Hoi An. Both sides during the war, decided to leave this historic city be, so it was undamaged. It is now fully preserved with UNESCO status and has hundreds of lovely 1 and 2 story buildings that reflect the influence of China, Japan, Portugal, France and others when it was a major port trading city in the 1800s. The harbor silted up and the port moved to DaNang and the city slumbered. You buy a ticket that gives you entrance to up to 6 of the dozen or so historic halls and houses. Having little time, we just walked around loving the architecture and the blooming bougainvillea and other flowers everywhere. All over southeast Asia custom tailor shops tout their wears, but the many, very fashionable tailor shops here beat out all the others. The best ones can take a picture of a dress or suit you like and make it for you in just a few days. I really wish we could have spent several days there seeing the historic properties and browsing the shops. Lots of restaurants to choose from too, and supposedly lovely beaches just a shuttle drive away. If you go to Vietnam, Hoi An should be a definite stop. The hotel was also willing to only charge us 3 nights instead of the non refundable 5 nights, so that was nice of them. (We stayed 2 nights.)
Back to the US
So we flew from DaNang to Ho Chi Min City for $65pp. We decided to spend the night at the Singapore airport to be a safe as possible. Our most expensive night of the trip for $150 at the Yotel, in the Jewel in Changi Airport. This is a small chain where you stay in tiny rooms just a bit larger than the queen size bed, huge TV, nice but small bathroom, coffee and such available in the lounge. Really just fine exceept no place for luggage except to trip over it. I think the bed makes up somehow into a sofa but not sure of that. United had changed our tickets from Bangkok to Ho Chi Min City through Singapore for no change fee and an upcharge of $82 pp so we were grateful for that. The flight from Singapore was not full, so we each had a 4 person row in economy for the 17 hour flight to San Francisco.
Our daughter wanted us to self quarantine for 14 days even thought at the time Vietnam had only 16 cases and Singapore was well controlled. We took an Uber from the airport to our RV storage for $55. Our US camper (24 ft) started right up and after the usual removing tire covers, reflectix, etc., we headed south to Gilroy to Gilroy Garlic USA RV Park, stopping at Costco and Safeway on the way. We do need to eat and there was no official reason for us to self-quarantine. The RV park is nice enough though just a glorified parking lot with pool for $51 a night on weekly rate. Like all California RV parks, lots of long timers or permanent residents but nothing old or bad looking. Best for us was that there was a Target and other shops across the street and a Walmart, Lowes, restaurants, etc. all less than a mile. We did stay out of the stores except for twice and pizza to go. Two days before the end of our quaranteen, the whole area up to San Francisco announced a shelter in place, so our daughter let us come two days early to her driveway in Menlo Park. So here we have been for 10 days—only out for neighborhood walks. No idea how long this will be. Obviously our trip to walk park of the Portugese Camino de Santiago April 21 and then on to Edinburgh to get our camper is off. Hopefully, we can still get the camper by July but we're not making any reservations.
Hope this finds you in a good spot to hunker down and fix everything in your RV and/or house you ever wanted to. Mark is finishing his travel blog and got Adobe Photo Elements to finally do all the work he has wanted to do on our tens of thousands of pictures. I will finish my very humble memoir for our granddaughter and use our new Adobe Premier to finally edit our family videos. Stay safe everyone. Vicki and Mark