Around the Traps in Southeast Asia Part 22
Saigon: After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I was back in this vibrant, chaotic city. As the taxi worked its way through the congested streets to my hotel in District One, I took in the mayhem around me. It was late afternoon, and peak hour on the roads and by-ways. Nothing much had changed, the driving style of the Viets was still as manic as ever; a sea of motorbikes weaving and dodging along the streets and horns honking everywhere. As we entered District One, I started to notice some familiar locations; restaurants where I’d taken local demimondaines for over-priced tourist meals. The demimondaines were long gone, and so was the idea I might be able to turn one into a normal girlfriend. You can’t, of course. With Viets money is number one and with those types of girls, even more so. The lies and schemes they have for bleeding your hard-earned cash, is unrivaled in Southeast Asia. Even by Thai bar girl standards.
As the taxi pushed on through the sea of motorbikes, I sat back and reflected on the drama I’d gone through to get into Vietnam. There had been a stuff up with my e-visa. Largely to do with my not checking the printed copy, before I stuffed it into my carry-on bag. The Vietnamese immigration had issued the visa without my full name on it. As I was checking in for my VietJet Flight, the counter staff at Phuket International noticed the discrepancy immediately; the visa had my first and middle name but not my surname. I was told I couldn’t get on the flight because, for sure, the immigration in Saigon wouldn’t accept the difference between the visa and my passport. I was given a phone number for the Vietnamese Immigration in Saigon, to try and sort things out. I rang the number and got the high-pitched screech of a fax machine at the other end. Completely useless and the idea I’d get another visa emailed to me that day, was a non-starter. The only saving grace being VietJet had changed the departure time, to later in the day. I had an extra three hours to sort something out. I got a taxi back to my apartment, and fired up the printer. Thankfully I’ve got a monthly subscription for a full suite of Adobe apps, which includes Acrobat. After a bit of tinkering with the fonts and grey scale, I was able to add my surname to the PDF file and print out the corrected e-visa. I got through check-in at Phuket Airport, and immigration in Saigon, without a hitch. NOTE: For anyone planning a trip Vietnam, Saigon immigration never checked whether I had COVID insurance or that I was fully vaccinated.
I’d booked into a small, Viet style hotel near the backpacker area of District One; known as PHAM NGU LAO. The Hotel, the HOANG HOANG, was centrally located but tucked down a side alley, affording a modicum of quietness at night. The crowded little streets and lane-ways to the north of the hotel is a local’s area, more so than tourists, with lots of cheap eats and tasty street food. Vietnamese staples such as Banh Mi, Pho and what is known as family food; cooked variations of pork, chicken, fish and vegetables (sitting in stainless steel trays) served with rice. It’s the type of food the locals normally eat for lunch. It’s cheap, tasty and not considered to be tourist food. There’s also plenty of pubs and bars, in nearby Bui Vien, where you can chill out along the edge of the street, and watch the world go by, while enjoying a cold Saigon Beer.
For my first night back in town I made my way across to the backpacker area (Bui Vien) for some cheap street food and a Beer Saigon. There seemed to be quite a few foreigners about so it looked as though inbound tourism was picking up again. My trained eye also noted there were a number of freelance massage girls in the area. These girls are basically ladies of the night. They offer you a massage but their real meaning is something else. I realized quite some time ago, interaction with these street prostitutes has a high degree of risk in Vietnam. These ladies normally have pimps somewhere nearby and they’re operating under the radar, as prostitution is illegal in Vietnam. There is the very real prospect that taking one back to your hotel room will have the police crashing through your door, shortly thereafter, demanding an exorbitant bribe to extricate yourself from the situation. If you want a massage, you’re better off going to an established premises.
Street forty, in Bui Vien, has a couple of restaurants which appeared to be the hangout for the local expat crowd. Guys who were either working in Saigon, or retirees, who enjoyed a few beers in the balmy evening ambiance. It seemed like a pleasurable atmosphere but there’s no escaping the fact that with a population of over 100 million people, Vietnam is a crowded chaotic place, regardless of where one goes in the country. In times past (prior to COVID) I had considered relocating to Vietnam. But not anymore. Detractors of the Land Of Smiles can point out the many negative aspects of living there but for me, living in Phuket still seems a far better option of than Vietnam. While the cost of living in Vietnam is cheaper, the overcrowding and traffic chaos is the main factor which eventually sees me wanting to get out of the place. A few days in Saigon as a tourist is doable, but the idea of living there is definitely off the table these days.
Prior to arriving in Saigon, I had a rough sightseeing plan mapped out for the three days I’d be there. For any newcomer there’s a number of attractions in District One which most put on their tourist bucket lists; Ben Tanh Market, the Grand Post Office, the Catholic Cathedral and the War Museum. I’d seen those already and decided to look at places of interest, further afield. Additionally, the idea of putting together a video about the historical war locations around Saigon, seemed appealing. Two excellent locations came to mind; the VC tunnels at Cu Chi and the VC camp at Can Gio Biosphere (aka Monkey Island). I’d been to Monkey Island a few years previously, in the days before I had a video camera, and was keen to visit again to get some footage. I’d also heard a lot of good things about the Cu Chi tunnels site, so that was definitely a place worth visiting. With these two places at the top of my bucket list I checked out a few travel agents along Pham Ngu Lao Road, and eventually settled on one which offered reasonable prices.
Independence Palace: This historical landmark of the Vietnam War era, is located in the center of District One (it’s easy enough to find on Google Maps). The palace was the final end point for the war. On April 30th 1975, two NVA tanks crashed through the gates to finally proclaim victory over the republican forces. The entry fee is 65,000 VND and if you want the audio tour, that’s an additional 90,000 VND. There’s some military hardware of the day – tanks, field guns, helicopters, and fighter jets – placed around the site to enhance the cost of the tour. For anyone who has an interest in recent Southeast Asian history (the Vietnam War Years) this place is worth an hour of your time.
Ben Duoc (Cu Chi Tunnels): The majority of tourists going to Cu Chi, invariably go to the most popular location; Ben Dinh. Mainly because the site is closer to Saigon, has less travel time, and is just easier for the tour companies. Accordingly, it’s the most crowded site of the two. I’d done a bit of research on-line and found out Ben Duoc, although a few kilometers further, is actually the better site. It is larger, is located in a jungle setting, and has more tunnels available to explore. The cost for the tour, with a guide, was very reasonable US 30 Dollars (tour booked with MT TRAVEL on Pham Ngu Lao Road). Pick-up time from the hotel was 8.30 am and travel time to the site was around two hours (this included a 20-minute drinks and toilet break at the disabled artists center).
On-site: As a bonus there’s a military museum, just outside the entry gate to the tunnels area, where sightseers are given around 20 minutes to look at the war damaged tanks, helicopters and a very impressive C-130 transport plane. You then have about two hours exploring the tunnels site. The local guide takes you on a very interesting tour, while explaining the history and function of the tunnels. Sightseers are given the opportunity to enter several tunnel locations. Back in the day, the only access was through tiny man-holes which the larger US soldiers couldn’t squeeze through. Stairways have now been put in place to allow easier access for tourists. The stairways take you down to an initial bunker room, which allows you to prepare yourself for the crawl through the tunnels. The longest tunnel, for a tourism experience, is about thirty meters. Even so, it’s a real squeeze. If you’re claustrophobic, it’s probably an experience to avoid as the tunnels are dimly lit.
Can Gio Biosphere (aka Monkey Island): This is another historical VC site, located approximately 53 km south of Saigon. The main attraction is the VC camp but a tour also includes stops to see monkey’s and crocodiles. I booked a tour through MT Travel (Pham Gnu Lao Road) and the price was a very reasonable 650,000 VND. Pick-up time from the hotel was 07.30 am and travel time to the site was just on two hours. NOTE: If you want to make this tour, try to avoid weekends and public holidays as the site can get very crowded on these days. Additionally, travel time to get there could take up to three hours (mainly due to the waiting time for the ferry crossing en-route).
Monkey feeding: Once you arrive onsite the tour leader will give a briefing on how to feed the monkeys, and not get bitten. For those wanting to get involved, the tour leader will give you a handful of peanuts. The monkeys, as soon as they see that peanut bag, start swarming around. For the unwary, who haven’t taken precautions to guard personal items, you may end up losing your sunglasses or baseball cap. To get photos, without losing your phone, you’re better off letting someone else do the feeding while you stand back and click away.
The crocodile pond: After around fifteen minutes of interacting with the monkey’s the group will head down the trail to the crocodile pond. There’s an elevated viewing platform, with an access path, in among the mangroves. For the safety of sightseers, the viewing platform has solid safety rails and is about four meters above the pond. There are some large crocs in the pond, all the saltwater type, with some being four to five meters in length. For twenty thousand VND, vendors provide poles with dead eels hanging off them to feed the crocs.
The VC historical camp: The distance from the crocodile pond to the VC camp, is approximately one km. The group will make a leisurely walk, on a solid pathway, through the mangrove forest. According to the guide, the forest covers 36,000 hectares and is a UNESCO designated site.
The solid trail through the mangrove forest eventually leads onto an elevated boardwalk. The boardwalk then winds through a spread of thatched huts depicting the daily operations of the VC fighters during the war with the US and republican army. Each hut has dressed manikins replicating activities such as the hospital, the kitchen, operations planning, and the workshop. According to the tour guide, the camp was first established in 1963 as a guerrilla base near the Saigon River. Many VC died from US bombing raids, but a good number (upwards of 1000) personnel were also taken by crocodiles. Back in the day, crocs were everywhere throughout the mangrove forest. Once the tour through the camp is completed, the group will board the transport boats for a fast ride through the mangroves and back to the waiting bus.
Click on this LINK If you’re interested in seeing a highlights video of the three above-mentioned sites.
Hanoi: After three fairly hectic days in Saigon I caught a Vietnam Airlines flight to the nation’s capital. I’d been in Hanoi a few times prior to COVID and found it to be a city which doesn’t do much for me. More of the same old crowded streets, traffic jams, and footpaths crammed with parked motorbikes and makeshift outdoor cafes, around Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a city which is hardly remarkable. If it wasn’t for the sex hook-up, with a demimondaine I’d met at a nightclub in Singapore, I wouldn’t have bothered going there. She was a Hanoi girl, attractive and great in bed. The only problem was her endless appetite for money. It was an appetite I finally tired of and in the end, I just stopped communicating with her. The truth is I see Hanoi as loud, noisy, and boring. I had two nights there before getting on a bus to Ha Giang.
Hanoi to Ha Giang: There’s no airport in Ha Giang so the primary method of getting there is on a bus or minivan. The buses normally depart from My Dinh Bus Station (Hanoi) and the distance is approximately 275 km. Many of the busses are advertised as being VIP sleepers and for the most part they are. However, the cubicles are designed for the stature of Vietnamese people and the six-hour trip tends to become quite uncomfortable for long legged foreigners. My departure time from Hanoi was 8.30 am and we arrived at the Ha Giang Bus Station at around 3.00 pm. There was one toilet and food stop on the way, which enabled me to straighten out and get the kinks out of my back. For the journey back I made a mental note to pay the extra for a seat on a VIP minivan.
Ha Giang accommodation: There are plenty of accommodation choices in Ha Giang City but if you’re planning to do the loop trip, the best two options are QT Guesthouse and Ha Giang Guesthouse. The two premises are located nearby each other (on the back road) and offer a wide range of rental motorbikes for the loop trip. The majority of the bikes are Honda semi-automatics but for the more experienced riders, there’ also the option (a bit more expensive) of renting a manual off road bike (Honda XR 150). Knowing some of the smaller roads on the loop could be a bit rough, I opted for an XR 150 for better stability and ground clearance. I’d booked into QT Guesthouse for two nights, prior to starting the loop. Most loopers will normally have just one night before hitting the road but I wanted some extra time to ride the bike around town, and get my gear sorted before getting underway.
Around Ha Giang: If you’ve got a day to spare, there’s a couple of worthwhile sightseeing attractions around Ha Giang which are worth checking out. The best are the HA GIANG CITY VIEWPOINT (right in the middle of town) and BASE CAMP WATERFALL, just a few km to the north of the city.
The Ha Giang City Viewpoint: As mentioned, this site is located right in the middle of the city. The access track is off QL4C Road, and is one of those smaller cement lane-ways which zig-zags its way up to a parking area; approximately 100 meters below the peak. Note: If you’re not an experienced motorbike rider, use due care when coming down the access road because some of the corners are hairpin bends which, if you’re going too fast, may see you go over a precipice. There are actually two options for this site. The first, and the easiest, is just to have a coffee at the BUS CAFÉ (next to the parking area) and enjoy the excellent views. The second, if you’re feeling fit and don’t mind going for a hike, is to take the 1000 steps to the lookout at the very top of the peak. The best time of day to do this is around five pm, when it’s a bit cooler. The views from the top are outstanding.
Thac So 6 (aka Base Camp) Waterfall: This waterfall site is a hidden gem, nearby Ha Giang City, and one of the best swimming spots in the area. A nice size waterfall feeds into a large plunge pool is a great place to cool off during the high humidity weather in Ha Giang. The surrounding landscape is a beautifully scenic area with thick jungle and vegetation down to the edges of waterfall site. The only negative aspect being that information, on how to get there, is almost non-existent, and Google Maps is patently incorrect in regards to GPS tracking directions. Note: If you follow the Google tracker you’ll end up on the wrong road and well away from the waterfall site.
Base Camp: This is an excellent restaurant/camp accommodation set-up, run by a Canadian guy named Dave (located on the left side of the river and on the way to the waterfall). It’s an entirely natural construction of wood and bamboo, in a rustic setting along the edge of the jungle. It really is a fantastic location to have a cold beer after a swim at the plunge pool; hang around and have chat and a beer with Dave, in the cool of the early evening.
The Ha Giang Loop: This motorbike tour through Ha Giang Province is an adventure experience which has gained almost mythical status over the past decade. It’s something which seems to be on every backpacker’s bucket list; a must do of travel in Southeast Asia. Something akin to a trip to Goa in the 1980’s. If you hadn’t done it, you’d missed out on the adventure of a lifetime. The only problem is the Ha Giang loop is hardly an adventure these days and the circuit isn’t even a loop; more like a noose with a long lead line which you depart and return on.
The doubt about what this mythical loop tour was, and how impressive it might (or might not) be, all started when I arrived at the QT Guesthouse in Ha Giang. To enter the building, I had to squeeze past an armada of scooters (at least 20) which were being prepped for the next run. My instincts told me a tour which once may have been a challenge to solo adventurers had now devolved into the standard Vietnamese mass tourism model. The following morning my observations were confirmed. A hoard of young backpackers had arrived during the night and were being hastily organised for the next squadron run. Contracts were signed, money was paid, passports were handed over and motorbike licenses were verified. Those with limited motorbike riding experience were given a practice run to determine if they had the necessary skills to go independently. Anyone who looked low on ability was given the option of being paired with a guesthouse staff member, and going as a pillion passenger. At around 10 am, with all baggage securely strapped in place, the twenty-bike squadron headed up the highway, like a swarm of wasps. Call me a cynic, but this hardly looked like an adventure of a lifetime.
Doing the loop: Generally the circuit can be completed in 3 – 4 days, depending on how many sightseeing stops you want to make. Most of the sightseeing is simply checking out the scenery from the seat of your motorbike. The group tours (led by QT staff) have a bucket list of stops which they normally don’t deviate from. These stops are the big ticket attractions which you’ll see on any tour company website, or brochures, and generally include major viewpoints, coffee stops, lunch and overnight stops. The problem with this is they miss a lot of other interesting spots, which are a few kilometers off the main road. This is normally because they’re on a tight schedule and want to return to their base in a given time frame. Essentially they (and by extension the paying customers in the group) are constantly being hurried along. Going independently gives one far more flexibility for getting off the beaten track.
As mentioned, most of the sightseeing attractions are simply viewpoints along the roadside. Some of them, such as the HEAVEN’S GATE location, have large parking areas and an attached cafe where the squadrons can pull in for their scheduled break. Being a bit of a cynic the whole thing seems a bit contrived and as I was to find out over the ensuing days, the Ha Giang Loop has become another Vietnamese mass tourism model rather than an adventure to be remembered.
Sightseeing highlights: The majority of the loop tour is spent riding through picturesque mountainous landscape. The best part of the tour is in the northeast section on the road between Dong Van and Meo Vac. This is normally covered in day two of the loop tour and the two highlight attractions are the MA PI LENG SKY WALK and the TU SAN SLOT BOAT TOUR.
Click this LINK to see a short highlights video both the above-mentioned locations
Sky Walk Monument: This large statue, located eight km south of Dong Van Township, is a memorial to the workers who lost their lives building happiness road. It’s also the start point for the pathway to the SKY WALK LOOKOUT. The start of the Sky Walk pathway is on the left side of the museum.
Ma Pi Leng Sky Walk: This is the pathway which takes you to the base of the lookout. It’s an exhilarating ride with fantastic views and steep drops into the valleys below. If you’re not confident, or comfortable, about riding a motorbike along a narrow pathway, you can leave your bike at the monument parking area and walk the 1 km to the lookout.
Needle Rock Lookout: This is the most popular spot for great views and excellent selfies. However, it tends to get quite crowded in the later hours of the day. That’s why I recommend overnighting in Dong Van, and not Yen Minh. Dong Van is much closer and you can be at this sightseeing attraction, easily by nine am. The parking area is small, just a narrow pathway between two hills, and gets really packed with motorbikes. The feature attraction in the Needle Rock, which protrudes from the cliff face, approximately twenty meters above the lane-way. There’s a rocky trail up to the needle rock but the final part, where you climb out onto the rock, is quite hazardous. If you don’t have a head for heights it’s probably one to avoid. If you’re a competent climber, the best views are actually at the very top of the peak – some fifteen meters above needle rock. From there you get almost 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape.
Tu San Cafe: This is another excellent roadside stop on the loop trip, perhaps even the best. The views down Ma Pi Leng Canyon are spectacular. Grab a coffee or a drink, and if it’s not raining, sit down in the outdoor seating area to the left of the cafe. For even better views, you can take the stairway to the lower level viewing platform.
Doing the boat tour: As of August 2022, the boat tour ticket office and parking area isn’t marked on Google Maps. There’s nothing in English to indicate where to go, just some local guy standing under an umbrella and waving at you to go up the road. When you get to the very bottom of the access road (route 193A) there’s a hairpin bend which then runs along the riverside. Right on this hairpin bend, there’s a dirt road which runs in the opposite direction. This is the road which leads up to the parking area and ticket office.
Boat tour fees: At the car park, Pay the 5000 VND parking fee then walk down to the ticket office area. The charge for the boat tour 120,000 VND, and it lasts about one hour. After you get the ticket, a minivan will then transport you to the boat departure area (which is actually on the grounds of the hydro-electric dam). NOTE: If you’re doing the loop solo (not in a group) try to avoid being put on a boat full of locals. Unfortunately this happened to me and my experience wasn’t good. A team of local ladies occupied the front of the boat and spent the entire trip taking selfies and group shots. No one else could get a turn at the front of the boat.
Vietnam trip summary: While I enjoyed my tour through northern Vietnam the rest of the place was, to be honest, pretty average. The crowding and traffic chaos, of the large urban centers, is something which tends to wear a bit thin if you’ve been to Vietnam a few times. It may seem exciting for a newcomer but having to sit in a minivan for two hours at a time to reach (and return) sightseeing destinations in Saigon, is just damn tedious. In going to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Monkey Island, over half of your trip time is spent on the road. Saigon still doesn’t have a decent public transportation system (such as the MRT and BTS) and getting around the place means getting a taxi, or a Grab ride, and inching your way through clogged streets.
Another thing which becomes apparent, once you’ve done a few trips to the place, is the tourism industry in Vietnam is set up for the locals, and not foreigners. What this basically means is that all their tourism locations (and activities) are a mass tourism model. Which is something the locals seem to enjoy simply because their societies are based on being in groups, and not individuals. As an example, if you go to the premier beach areas (Da Nang and Nha Trang) what you’ll see is a nice strip of sand with a six lane highway running down the length of it. Lining the highway (on the opposite side of the beach) is a row of multi-story hotels. This is set up for the locals. They all swarm out of the hotels at 5 am to go swimming in the cool of the day and then head back inside by 7 am to avoid the heat. If you go down to the beaches at 9 am, you’ll have them to yourself. Everything they set up is done for their own people. The seafood restaurants along the beach-side are those large open settings with small tables and chairs for crowding in as many people as they can.
So many of the cafe’s and restaurants I went into didn’t have an English language menu. On the Ha Giang Loop, the majority of tourists I saw were foreigners and yet the locals still can’t get their crap together when it comes to providing basic information. I noted a comment on a Vietnam vlog about people doing one trip to the place and not coming back, I would suggest this is part of the reason why. The idea of actually providing a service directed towards foreigners hasn’t sunk in yet. To be honest I think the Viets are a fairly hard headed lot who have the misguided notion, when it comes to tourism at least, that their way is the best way. It is for their own people, but not for foreigners.
A lot of expats, living in Vietnam, prattle on about how great the place is to live in. After fifteen trips there, in the past ten years, I can say categorically I don’t see it being better than Thailand as a place to reside. Yes, it’s got some great scenic locations (caves and mountains) for a short visit but as a long term option, the overcrowding and traffic chaos will eventually wear you down. To be honest I don’t think I’ll be heading back to Vietnam for a while. As far as Southeast Asia goes, the less crowded landscapes of Cambodia and Laos seem far more appealing.
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