May 2024

Good Morning, Vietnam!


Getting to Vietnam was supposed to be easy. And it probably would have gone off without much excitement, except for the news we received upon arriving at the bus station in Phnom Penh….

The Bus Mix-up in Phnom Penh

We decided to exit Cambodia on the Cambodian Buddhist New Year – not the best time to try to get a bus somewhere, as everyone gets a week of holidays and full chaos breaks out. We arrived at the bus station at 8 a.m., as per our ticket’s instructions, and in a tuk-tuk. Unfortunately, because it was a holiday, we had to pay for our own tuk-tuk instead of getting a complimentary pick-up. The check-in girl took our tickets and started talking in Khmer to the other ladies – by the tone of their voices, I could tell this was not good. Apparently, we were not scheduled to be on the 8:30 a.m bus, but rather, we had already MISSED our 6:30 a.m bus. And they were not happy with us, claiming it was our fault that we slept in and missed our bus.

We politely pointed out that our tickets said 8:30 a.m on them, and that the travel agent lady had even wrote on the back “take tuk-tuk to central bus station at 8 a.m.” Clearly, we were not in the wrong. More Khmer talking ensued, and they finally decided that it was true, it was the travel agent’s fault. I guess it had caused great problems for them when we hadn’t shown up at 6 a.m, as they had no idea what hotel we were staying at or anything because they didn’t take this information down due to the lack of pick-up on the holiday. It looked as though we would be stuck in Phnom Penh for another day.

There was no way I was staying in Cambodia in another day…so I strapped on my negotiating hat started to try to convince the ladies to let us on the 8:30 bus. I acknowledged that, yes, the bus was full, but I had noticed on our last bus that seats in the aisle fold-out and, although uncomfortable, function. She told me this was no option. I asked if we could pay more to bump someone else from their seat. Nope. I asked if they would compensate us for this miscommunication, which was clearly NOT our fault, by refunding our ticket at least and paying for our hotel for the night. They wouldn’t oblige to this either. She said “maybe someone not show up. You wait.” Twenty minutes passed, and we were told we could get on the bus – someone hadn’t shown up and there had been one extra seat on the bus all along.

So, we ended up on the bus. Disaster averted. Our seats really did suck – we were right next to the toilet and seated directly above the engine, which gets HOT (and a/c doesn’t really work on these buses anyway), so it was a lovely ride. At least we weren’t stuck in Phnom Penh.

Crossing into Vietnam

We got our second taste of Vietnamese bureaucracy at the border. Us, and the other five Western people on the bus were treated almost like second-class citizens: not only were we all seated in the undesirable back section of the bus, but every single asian person on the bus didn’t have to do much to get across the border, didn’t have their pictures taken by border officials, and were served before us for everything. It’s definitely not a pleasant feeling to be treated differently based on the colour of your skin and hair.

Now, most border crossings are somewhat organized in that you wait in line, and when it’s your turn, you proceed to the immigration officer and they stamp your passport. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, no, not in Socialist Vietnam. The bus staff person had to take all of our passports up to the front, while we waited in a giant cluster, and we were called up one by one to pass through the gate, without the immigration officer even looking to see if the picture and passport matched us. Of course, the Westerners were last, except for Scott. He was called near the beginning (maybe because his eyes are slightly closed in his passport photo they got confused as to his nationality?!) and got pretty worried, especially because I was dead-arse last and took about 45 minutes longer than him to get through.

Chilling at a bar drinking $1 Saigon beer, watching the crazy motorcycle traffic of Saigon in front of us.

Chilling at a bar drinking $1 Saigon beer, watching the crazy motorcycle traffic of Saigon in front of us.

We made it to Saigon (now called Hoh Chi Mihn City after the war in the ’70s, but everyone here still calls it Saigon) and got dropped off the bus. We had planned to stay at a place recommended in the Lonely Planet, but it required a bit of a walk and we were pretty tired after a long border crossing day filled with lots of disorder. We turned around, and shining at us like an Oasis in a desert was a giant maple leaf with the words “CANADIAN HOTEL” beckoning us forward. I turned to Scott and said “I think this is a sign! We need to stay here!” He was a bit horrified, but c’mon – how many Canadian Hotels have we seen in our travels? Zero. Maybe it was run by a really friendly Canadian person, I reasoned?

We went inside and were greeted by a very tiny and adorable Vietnamese girl named Chi. The owner was also Vietnamese. It was clear that the Canadian name was no more than just that – just a name for a hotel. But it was reasonably priced, clean and in a good area, so we hunkered down.

Canadian Hotel in Saigon

Canadian Hotel in Saigon

We spent the evening marvelling at the intense traffic of Saigon. We sat down for a drink on a busy street and just watched all the people go by. It was VERY different from Cambodia. More like NYC but with motorcycles beeping instead of cabs. We found a place to eat, looked at some shops, and just took in our surroundings. We were quite enjoying being in a big city again – this place was clean, the people were friendly, and it was fun. We were immediately enjoying ‘Nam.

Learning About the “American War”

We spent our second day in Saigon touring places of historical interest, starting off with the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels are located only 15 km outside of Saigon, but it took us two hours to get there – traffic in Saigon is legendary.

Upon arriving, we were escorted to the first of the tunnels – tiny little rectangle entrances into the ground. Our guide was “John Wayne” as he called himself – his name was something like “Jan Cheng” but he told us all Westerners just say John Wayne…he had a pretty funny American accent too – it was quite comical. Anyway, John Wayne invited us to try to get inside the tiny tunnel. However, he warned us that just a few weeks ago, a Western lady got stuck because her hips were too big and they had to take out a piece of wood to get her out. Uh, no thanks. Everyone declined….even the tiny little local Vietnamese tourist!

One of the entrances to the tunnels where a western lady got stuck.

One of the entrances to the tunnels where a western lady got stuck.

Next up, we saw some of the gory traps the Viet Cong had constructed to beat the Americans. They were quite simplistic, made out of bamboo and other mostly natural materials, but these guys were clever. Then, we were taken to a shooting range and for a dollar, could shoot a bullet in an AK-47. I thought Scott might take them up on it, but he didn’t. Personally, I hope I never have to shoot a gun in my life.

Our last stop of the tour was at a 50 meter tunnel – we crawled through to see how the Viet Cong did it back in the 70s. REALLY small spaces. The Vietnamese are tiny tiny people, and although Scott and I are pretty small for Westerners, it was even tight for us. I opted to crawl on my hands and knees through the dirt and darkness while Scott duck walked. He went the full 50 meters, whereas I had had enough at the 25 meter mark. We couldn’t imagine being stuck in those tunnels when they were in use. They were basically used for slipping past American forces and bringing forces to the front lines out of view of the Americans, so you’d have hundreds of scared soldiers in those tunnels rushing to the front lines, with bullets and bombs going off above you. Living like that would be insane.

Kenna heading into one of the Cu Chi tunnels.

Kenna heading into one of the Cu Chi tunnels.

Before leaving, we watched a short documentary on the American War (The Vietnam War, as North Americans generally know it), and it struck me how proud the Vietnamese are over this feat. Throughout our whole trip, John Wayne spoke with a lot of pride for his people and the documentary continued to highlight this. We left the Cu Chi tunnels with a very different feel of the Vietnam/American War – very different to the exposure we have had to it, where it was viewed as a very traumatizing experience for American soldiers and all of the people protesting it back in the 70s. It was really interesting to see it portrayed from such a different perspective.

Reunification Palace (the old “Independence Palace”)

The bus gave us the option of dropping us either at our hotel, or the War Museum – we opted for the museum, but decided not to go in. We took a peek and read up about it in our book, and it was described as being pretty gory and horrific and very one-sided, describing the atrocities the Americans committed but neglecting to mention that the North Vietnamese were fairly ruthless as well. We figured we’d had enough of that in Cambodia, so we decided to pass, and instead we headed to the palace.

Reunification Palace, formerly Independence Palace in Saigon

Reunification Palace, formerly Independence Palace in Saigon

The palace is the symbolic representation of communism taking over Southern Vietnam. Saigon was the last stand of the American-backed South Vietnamese Army, and when the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese easily took over. The last event of the war was the dramatic collapse of the Independence Palace, when a tank crashed through the gates of the palace, and forced the surrender of the South Vietnamese forces. The palace has been left almost untouched since that day, as if they want to keep it in the exact moment of their supreme victory, so the decor and everything is still the same as it was in 1975. There are old rotary phones in all the offices, and old amplifiers and radios everywhere. Even the maps on the walls in the president’s war room still show the positions of his forces, so it was pretty interesting. The basement also had a bit of a museum, where they showed images of the victory and a bit of history.

Saigon’s Night Market

We decided to cap off our night with a visit to the night market, where we’d shop and eat. We found a little stall and hunkered down for some food, which was actually quite good! The highlight of eating here was watching a fellow roast LIVE prawns, and one actually jumped off the grill in pain. It was a bit disturbing. Then, one prawn burst when he removed it from the grill, showering us in prawn parts. It was definitely an experience.

A guy roasting live prawns, shortly before one of them hopped right off the grill

A guy roasting live prawns, shortly before one of them hopped right off the grill

We did some hard bargaining at the market and ended up with far too much stuff that has resulted in our bags being ridiculously heavy. Thank goodness we’ll be making a shipment home soon, as soon as we purchase suits and other custom-made delights in Hoi An.

Kite Surfing in Mui Ne

The next morning, we left bright and early on a bus to Mui Ne – a little beach town that is renowned for kite surfing. We hadn’t actually planned on coming here, but my step-brother, Landon, loved it when he was in Vietnam and Scott REALLY wanted to try kite surfing.

Upon arrival and finding an adorable little bungalow right next to the ocean at a place called Hiep Hoa, we went in search of a kite surfing school. Well, there was one on either side of us, and the beach was littered with them…so our search didn’t take long. It turns out that kite surfing is quite expensive, and it wasn’t really feasible for both of us to do it, given our budget…so we decided Scott would test it out and I would make it my engagement present to him. I would lay on the beach and watch…which wasn’t too shabby either. I’ll turn it over to Scott to describe his experiences kite surfing.

Scott getting ready for some kite surfing lessons

Scott getting ready for some kite surfing lessons

Kite surfing looks so easy – it’s just like wake boarding with a kite, and how hard is it to fly a kite? Apparently really hard. These kites are much more massive and powerful than anything I’ve ever used before, and if you jerk on them right, they can lift you up about 5m, which is also how you do those awesome hang-time tricks. But if you’re not careful, it can really hurt you – we saw one guy get dragged down the beach for 50 m like he was just a rag doll before the kite caught in a tree. So suffice to say, my first hours of training were all kite training – I didn’t even get to go in the water, and my first hour wasn’t even on a real kite, it was on a fake kite. And when I did get into the water, it wasn’t with a board, it was with my instructor strapped to me teaching me how to use the kite to drag you with and against the wind. It wasn’t until after 5 hours of all this training that I finally got on a board. And by then we had blown through my lesson time, and I only got a couple of very short rides actually standing on the board. But they were a fun few minutes! I’d definitely recommend kite surfing – it’s way more rewarding than surfing and a lot of fun.

The view from our bungalow, where Kenna enjoyed many hours of watching Scott's kite surfing

The view from our bungalow, where Kenna enjoyed many hours of watching Scott's kite surfing

Aside from the kite surfing/beach time, we didn’t do much. On our last day, we did a little afternoon trip in a 4×4 jeep that took us to a few cool places.

The first stop was “Fairy Stream” – a little stream that you hiked about one kilometer through to see a waterfall. The landscape was quite lovely and we had a few Vietnamese kids try to get some money from us by “guiding” us, even though you just followed the stream. Sorry kiddies!

The next stop was a look out over a fishing village. Vietnamese fishing boats all look identical, and it was quite a sight to see hundreds of them crammed into a beautiful bay.

After that, we went to the white sand dunes, where we rented crazy carpets and slid down giant mounds of sand. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, but I have to admit, tobogganing is funner, albeit much colder. 🙂 We still had a good time and a bunch of Vietnamese kids rented us their carpets and pushed us down the hill. The only downside is that they kept wanting us to give them money for it, and pretty much the only English word they knew was “money” and would keep chanting “money, money, money” at us. We got our first taste of what it must feel like to be a parent.

Sand dunes

Sand dunes

Our last stop was the red sand dunes, where you could do more sand sliding – we opted out since we were covered in fine sticky sand from head to toe and had had our fill (literally – my mouth was full of sand). Instead, we watched the sun set over the hills, and then rode back in our jeep in the dusk.

If anyone is heading up or down the Vietnamese coast, I highly recommend a stop off in Mui Ne. We spent four nights there (a millennium in terms of how long we tend to stay in places) and we could have easily done another four. The beach is lovely, kite surfing is awesome (even if you just watch from a beach chair, it provides endless entertainment) and the attitude is laid back. The little tour to the sand dunes is fun too! The show must go on, however, so we caught an afternoon bus to Nha Trang, a much larger and happening beach town which should prove to be good times.

5 comments to Good Morning, Vietnam!

  • Scott

    If anyone would like to be notified by email when a new post comes out, feel free to add your email into the “subscribe” box at the top right of the blog. Thanks for reading!

  • Mer

    Hey Scott! Clayton kite boards on the snow in the winter! He loves it! He is always looking for someone to go with! 😉

    Vietnam looks awesome! 🙂

  • gina

    Cute bum, Kenna!

  • Dad

    Not your most “photogenic” angle Sweet Pea.

  • Marc Chiswell

    You totally should have shot the AK-47.

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