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Ho Chi Minh Trail by Bob, David & Tuan

In June I took my son to see the REAL Vietnam. It’s probably not the best time of the year there because it’s Summer, but since we were going to be in the Central Highlands much of the time, it was fine. Another bonus was that it was harvest time, so we saw plenty of rural activity.
Our plan was to drive Hanoi to HCM City following the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but before leaving Hanoi we toured the more interesting sites, including the War Museum and the Temple of literature. The tiny fresh-water shrimp were great and as usual we ate well throughout the trip.
The first day was a long one – about 650km to Dong Hoi, but we took a side trip to Cam Thuy (Thanh Hoa province) to see the masses of Carp in the stream and stopped off at Dong Loc intersection, the most bombed part of Vietnam, to see the memorials. It was a long day with the roads covered in rice husks drying in the sun and harvest traffic, not to mention the condition of the road itself on occasions.
In Dong Hoi we stayed at the Sun Spa Resort, a huge complex of apartments right on the beach with an enormous swimming pool. Summer being the Vietnamese holiday time, it was filled with families relaxing and enjoying the facilities. That evening we ate local produce at a beach restaurant.
The next day’s destination was Hue and we passed through the DMZ and crossed the old border between North and South about 100km south of Dong Hoi, through Quang Tri to Hue where we stayed at the delightful and luxurious French Colonial Saigon Morin Hotel and visited the Citadel and the Forbidden City and saw the progress made with its restoration since my last visit. We heard that we had escaped the weather, Hanoi being deluged after we left with local flooding.
We were aiming for Pleiku the next day, but the car had other ideas. Everything was fine as we passed the beautiful Cau Hai lagoon, but after negotiating the Hai Van Pass (on the new road and tunnel and that fantastic road stop ‘cafe’) the engine began to lose power and finally died just south of Da Nang. This had not been a planned stop, but we spent the night there until the local Ford dealership sorted out the fuel pump and this gave us the opportunity to look at the amazing beach developments and Marble Mountain before departing.
From Da Nang we climbed up into the highlands proper so did not go south to Hoi An, through Kon Tum and into the large city of Pleiku. I saw a long concrete stretch north of the city, parallel to the road, which I am sure must have been the wartime USAAF airfield. Here we stayed at the modern Hoang Anh Gia Lai Hotel, owned by one of the city’s favourite sons, and took a walk around the local area. I’ve never seen so many motorbike showrooms before!
The trouble with the car meant we had lost a day, so we activated Plan B here and booked ourselves on a flight into Saigon from our next stop, Buon Ma Thuot. This was only a comfortable 200km away so we had a relaxed start from Pleiku, but the road was particularly nasty and narrow and I’m pretty sure we busted a shock absorber in one of the many holes. It meant we missed Da Lat but we have left plenty for David to do on his own next time.
Saigon was only 350kms away, but we were flying out of Tan Son Nhut the following evening and wanted some time in the city to look around. After almost 2000kms of driving in 4 days we had had about enough of this mode of travel anyway so we said goodbye to Tuan, our guide and driver, and he headed off for Nha Trang to put the car on the train and return to Hanoi while David and I flew to Saigon, a mere 45 minute hop away.
We visited the War Remnants Museum and did some shopping in the city centre before retiring and the next day we searched out my old haunts in Cholon from more than forty years before as David wanted to see where the stories had originated.
This was not a relaxed trip as time constraints meant we had to push on and push hard to cover the distance. We were only in the country 8 days, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be a great trip if 12-14 days were allocated. Most tourists stick to a well-worn path, but with a little more time than we had would allow for a relaxing trip and extra stops which would take in most of what the standard route follows.

War Museum in Hanoi

War museum in Hanoi

Hanoi Outskirt

Hanoi Outskirt

West Lake restaurant in Hanoi

West Lake restaurant in Hanoi

Hanoi temple of literature

Hanoi temple of literature

Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi

Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Trail

Stated into Ho Chi Minh Trail

Bridge links to Holyfish Pond in Cam Thuy

Bridge links to Holyfish Pond in Cam Thuy

Fish Pond, a local tourist attraction

Fish Pond, a local tourist attraction

Holyfish

Holy fish

Tuan & David

Tuan & David

Along Ho Chi Minh Trail

Along Ho Chi Minh Trail

Dong Loc Intersection

Dong Loc Intersection

Dong Loc Intersection

Dong Loc Intersection

Dong Loc Memorials

Dong Loc War Memorials

Sunspa Resort - A local tourist relaxation in Dong Hoi

Sunspa Resort – A local tourist relaxation in Dong Hoi

Truong Son Cemetery

Truong Son Cemetery

Truong Son Cemetery

Truong Son Cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Truong Son cemetery

Forbidden City of Hue

Forbidden City of Hue

Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc in Hue

Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc in Hue

Another adventure day in Da Nang!

Another adventure day in Da Nang!

David in HAGL Pleiku

David in HAGL Hotel Pleiku

Pleiku at night

Pleiku at night

On the way to Don village in Buon Me Thuot

On the way to Don village in Buon Me Thuot

Don Village

Don Village

Elephant ride

Elephant ride

War Museum in Saigon

War Museum in Saigon

War Museum in Saigon

War Museum in Saigon

War Museum in Saigon

Written & photo by Bob Livingstone

Saigon, Reasons To Go!

Saigon VietnamFood is better

This is much related to personal taste, as most of Northern people are not quite getting along with Saigon’s food flavors. What I like is a big range of food. Many choices for your eating, especially breakfast. It will be easy to stay a month but you don’t need to eat the same courses each day

Service is much better then elsewhere

No matter what service you use, small restaurant or 5 star service standard, you will feel comfortable and ‘be served’. That is hardly to get elsewhere in Vietnam, especially Hanoi.

Taxi is good

You will have reason to worry when you use Taxi in Hanoi, but in Saigon you will find more reliable taxi around. It is not only to reputable taxi operators like Mai Linh or Vinasun, I found others are also fine. They are helpful and honest on serving.

Things seem to be cheaper now

Depending on services you use, but lately I found cost of living in Saigon is cheaper than Hanoi.  Accommodation is 20% cheaper than Hanoi in the same standard. House renting is even lower at least about 40% which is great chance for anyone wish to stay in Saigon at the moment.

Weather is stable

It is sunny and hot year around in South of Vietnam including Saigon. I personally don’t like sun and heat but stable temperature and lower humidity would please most of people especially Northern where the weather is always hard to predict.

Saigon

When I stepped out of Saigon station in early of 1999, I realized that the City was not for me.  There were so many things I dislike about, noisy, strange, food, accents and might be a part of its history. We was told about Saigon as the capital of Vietnam War, place of death and horrible killers. Saigon was eyed like that by a 20 years old conservative Northern boy.

After 4 years stayed, I’d loved every corners of it. Saigon has its own charm that not quite the same to any other places. Saigon culture could be suitable for young people, things are more simple here, no particular scrutiny like in Hanoi. Someone said it has influence from America, No, I don’t think so, it seems like weather, geography conditions made people here more open and friendly.

I was addicted to coffee since I was here, I just like the way people having it, the best way to know the locals though coffee shops on roadside where people talk, chatting away after breakfast or lunch break. You don’t have to keep silence like in Hanoi, conversations are unnecessary considerate which is a must in the North. Fun is easier found here.

I miss Saigon sometimes, miss the wide selection of food that mostly unbearable to Northern people, miss those motor taxi drivers on roadside with big smiles every times I passed them. No more reason to base there for long but It has certainly an excitement whenever I am thinking to go there.

Top 5 things to do in Vietnam 2011

Whilst my work is required lot of updates on travel and tourism to give customers the best advice on Vietnam travel and bring the most exciting things or destinations to our programs. Last year, I wrote a top do list in Vietnam and gained back such a great comment  from customers. This year, I would like to show you few more activities that you may put them onto your consideration.

As you may know, Vietnam offers different of cultures and exciting activities to travelers. It is hard for me to narrow to 5 things to do in Vietnam. However, I think those 5 are must sees or dos while traveling to my country in 2011. As normal, I always prefer to suggest people stay closer to local culture or activities.

1, Drive a motorbike

Sounds a bit crazy especially on rush time in Saigon or Hanoi, however, you can find quite a few of quiet places in Vietnam to do that. For example, countryside of Nha Trang or Hoi An could be a good places to experience. Joining with a local guide is recommended and don’t forget your helmet.

2, Pick an island along the coastlines

Vietnam beaches are great! They are raw, quality water and offer a great range of seafood. Any islands in central or further south could please you in any ways. I particularly fall in love with Nha Trang, not touristy island tours but Whale island that located about 60km north up. Great food, no crowded, enough activities to keep you happy for few days. What are you looking for more? Phu Quoc or Con Dao islands recently become a popular destination too.

3, Get a suit made in Hoi An

Why Hoi An? Because Hoi An offer more choices of fabrics, cost effective and amazingly instant service. There are number of shops in old quarter to choose from. People often recommend Yaly, A Dong and Thu Thuy shop which provide quality service in town. That would be nice souvenir for yourself, wouldn’t it?

4, A food walk tours in Hanoi

Best Vietnamese foods are not from posh restaurant, they are all from the places on the street. Hanoi can be considered for food vendor paradise. If you have a local friend, that will be easy, if not, some tour companies can arrange a meaningful day for you to enjoy the famous Vietnamese food or drink. I have 100% satisfaction customers on this unique tour.

5, Drive along Ho Chi Minh Trail

It can be wonderful for adventure minded. The drive itself already made people happy by its amazing scenery, visit and meet the friendliness locals on the way will make your day. I am just so surprised that not many tourist taking this route. Trip can be arranged from Hanoi and southbound with stops at beaches in some towns. Experienced driver and tour guide are required.

I know there are many Vietnam travel experts out there, if you have any personal interesting activities of your own, please help me to complete the list. Cheers and happy travel!

Hey Taxi!

Public transport in Vietnam is one of the most difficult arrangements for travelers. What is available has no specific routes within the cities.  The Xe Om (motor taxi) is convenient but is vulnerable for the passenger in the traffic in the big cities. Privately hired cars are comparatively expensive. Catching a cab is the best option all round.

There are about 14,000 taxis in Hanoi and about double that in Ho Chi Minh City.  In the last couple of years ‘taxi scams’ has been the most popular topic in Vietnamese forums as well as travel forums overseas. What I am saying below is to make some explanation from a culture angle about this issue and hope that you will have a better understanding about this particular problem and maybe other social issues in Vietnam.

Labor management is a very important part of every company culture. It makes or breaks that business. Everyone knows that. Vietnamese taxi companies also know that. They have done quite a lot to improve their service and brand name. They try hard by training a service culture into employees. They created a Taxi Association in order to make a fair competitive market. They have organized an active inspection team to clean out all ‘scam’ acts from their workers.  They even require their workers to deposit an amount of money with the company which is forfeit if they are caught treating their customers improperly.  They are doing more and more to gain customer’s satisfaction – your smiles. Do those acts work? Yes, but not fully. The problem is that the ‘working culture’ of Vietnamese is different from other countries. I’ll explain:

The personality of the majority of Vietnamese is based on and influenced by a culture that we called Tiểu Nông (Agriculture Minded – AM) (I am not too sure about my translation).   AM is a product of an agricultural society that makes people narrow-minded: short term acts, not thinking much of consequences, oriented to personal profit and thinking less about social profit in general. It has been this way in Vietnam for thousands of years so it will take time to change the culture. The attitude means an individual Vietnamese may get success, but the long term outcome can be broken relationships and businesses. Teamwork has never been the strong suit for Vietnamese. Taxi drivers in Vietnam are very much part of this AM group because most of them have had a very limited access to education. Human Resources are the most difficult part to control in Taxi enterprises. Moreover, Vietnamese in general work emotionally, and are not good at following the regulations!  It is useless to teach them only to obey regulations; they require a good understanding of the reasons FOR the regulations as well as being offered additional incentives if you expect to get good results. This explains why the ‘village culture’ is still exists and why you must follow the rules from that particular area. This is a complicated consequence of Vietnamese society.

I believe things have been changing with Vietnam’s integration into the world economy. These bad habits will not be suitable with the demands of economic expansion. Until this can be achieved travelers need to be aware and protect themselves from this possibility. I have some tips for tourists when you use a Taxi in Vietnam:

  • Always know the name and if possible the address where you want to go.
  • Take your hotel card with you for the return trip and get someone to write in Vietnamese your destination so you can show the driver.
  • Use good brand taxis with their meter on and with the meter sealed in a plastic box.
  • Never use a grubby taxi; the new and clean one seems to be more able to be trusted.
  • Negotiate the price before boarding for ‘fixed routes’ like Hotel to Airport or the reverse.
  • Ask Reception in a hotel to call the taxi for you wherever you are anywhere if possible, even you are not staying there.
  • If you feel something is wrong, stop the Taxi, pay the bill, then leave.
  • If an argument arises, get the number plate, taxi number or any recognizable identity you can see, look for locals to help, speak loudly to get attention if you can but on no account get in a fight.
  • If you have any complaints to Taxi company, make sure you have basic evidences like taxi number, timing, routes..etc, and don’t forget to rush them to follow your case. One or two phone calls only may not be effective enough, you need to ring them more frequency.

Now,  it’s your turn, do you have any personal tips or experiences about Taxi scams to share with people? Please kindly leave your comment to help the others. Cheers & Safe travel!

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