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"Vietnam Impressive"

A 10 Day Journey

Story by Tony J. May 14th, 2016

The Meme

Vietnam Impressive was the name of a travel agency that quoted us. We didn’t end up using their service but the name stuck around. As we trekked into the country, someone started saying it out of the blue.

It soon became a meme.

Vietnam Impressive!” We’d yell out whenever something cool or impressive actually happened.

Indeed. Vietnam was impressive.

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day 1: Saigon Chronicles

We got to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late Day 0 evening. In the next morning my roommate and I woke up saw this beautiful dawn silhouette out of our tiny window.

Dang! That’s nice.

We murmured.

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Build up

As we ate breakfast on the hotel roof, we took in the cityscape. Residential buildings were often very narrow. The lot sizes were limited so people got creative and went upwards.

Looks like an extreme version of SF. I thought.

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Ho CHI MINH, Tai Chi

This was Vietnam. Bustling and full of energy.

Cars, scooters and people intermingled. It looked dangerous but no one was crashing.

Watching the traffic flow was like seeing two Tai Chi masters pushing hands. What I felt was pure harmony.

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viewing distance

We went up to the highest point in the city, the Saigon Skydeck.

Density at scale was on display.

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The other side of the town looked more developed.

We were told by the Skydeck guide that the red structure in the corner is the famous Bến Thành Market, where all kinds of goods were sold. The air conditioned viewing deck was a nice escape from the 35-degrees hot and humid weather outside. We decided to kick back and have a cold beer.

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Another shanghai?

The east side of the Saigon River reminded me of Shanghai’s Lujiazui in the 1980s.

For both cities, a river carved out a delta across from the heart of the city.

Lujiazui later developed into a mega city-center filled with skyscrapers. This delta is called Thủ Thiêm. It is planned to follow Shanghai’s suit. Our guide explained to us in fairly good English.

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Downtown, Saigon
Downtown, Shanghai

After a nice break, we headed down.

Keanu made a joke as he squatted down to take a photo of us. We cracked up.

Later, the rain loomed near, we decided to move on.

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Day 2-3: Hoi AN detour

After a gruelling day of travel, we’ve arrived late in Hội An.

The next morning we freshened up and head out to the old town. Hội An is quite small and its old town has been remodelled for tourists, but it is still interesting in its own ways.

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We walked around in the relentless heat and observed what was around us.

The old town had a quiet river flowing through it, plenty of vibrant colours, longboats and souvenir shops. To many, this was the idealistic Vietnam. However, to me this felt kind of unreal. Nevertheless it was fun to sit back and observe the dynamic between the tourists and the locals.

The locals would hustle hard trying to sell to the tourists, often shouting at them. Some tourists shied from it and carried on walking. Some would politely refuse. Others haggled proudly with them.

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alley coup

To avoid paying the entrance fee, which was significantly higher for foreign tourists, we walked around the side alleys to find our own ways of going in and out.

Every home had their windows open to ventilate the heat. As we walked through, we heard families cooking, chatting and going about their day.

Very interesting to peer into the lives of others like this. I thought.

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The next stop was Mỹ Sơn, an ancient ruin not too far from Hoi An.

On the way there I noticed our driver had a mini statue of Mary and baby Jesus on the top of his dashboard. I wondered what he thought about life in Vietnam, but hand gesturing can only go so far for such a topic, espcially given that he was driving.

So I stopped trying and opted to observe outside.

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Mỹ Sơn, not my son

After about an hour drive, we got to Mỹ Sơn.

What we saw was mind-blowing. It was a cluster of Hindu temples abandoned since the 14th century.

I had no idea I was going to visit a UNESCO world heritage site.

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What was sad about it was that over 70% of the temples were destroyed when American bombers carpet bombed the area in Vietnam War. There were still large bomb craters all over the place.

It all seemed so surreal.

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Da Nang, da Beach

We stayed for a while but the eventually heat got to us so we decided to move on.

The next stop was Đà Nẵng.

We came upon this pristine beach just outside of the city.

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No one was on it. We recon it must be the unbearable heat.

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On the road

We too had to retreat.

After a brief rest, we journeyed on towards our next destination.

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It was a beautiful car ride, seeing the outside world.

At times it was also nerve-racking, especially when we drove head on towards on-coming traffic.

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DAY 4: HUE WE COME

We arrived at Huế the old capital, late in the evening.

Huế is on midline of the country, evenly dividing the north and south.

After a short walk near the Waterfront, our group returned to get some sleep.

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The next morning, we headed out towards the Imperial City.

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We got our tickets and walked in bright and early.

The place was exquisite and quiet. It reminded me a lot of China’s old imperial city.

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War, what is it good for?

I peered through a door on the main walkway. What I saw was the remanence of war.

In fact, I later learned that the majority of buildings in the palace were destroyed in the Battle of Hue in 1968.

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Even though we wanted to stay longer, the heat made everything difficult. So we decided to head out.

But the Imperial City was really enjoyable.

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Day 5: phong nha, phone, nah

We took the train from Hue, up north to Đồng Hới, a tiny town in the narrowest section of Vietnam. We then got on car that took us to Phong Nha, a village deep in the mountains.

Phong Nha is home to another UNESCO world heritage site—the Phong Nha Caves, which we were determined to see.

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1000 words

This picture is very telling about Phong Nha. The main road on which the couple rode their scooter, was only built about a year ago, thus giving the outside world better access to the village. But cars seldomly travelled on it so cows got the right of way. However as access became easier, more and more tourists are showing up. So villagers are putting up new buildings along the main street for restaurants, hostels and all kinds of other shops.

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DAY 6: AROUND TOWN

What our guide had planned out was to have local scooter drivers take us (in a fleet of six scooters) to the interesting places around Phong Nha. We’d also save our big cave for the day after. It was a solid plan.

Photo courtesy of Hong.

The first stop was a farm stay. Owned by an Aussie in his 50s and his Vietnamese wife.

He had been coming back here for years, before eventually finding more than enough reasons to stay for good.

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To us the place felt more like a small villa. We rested up and had some delicious brunch.

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The next spot was more adventurous. It was perfect for a beer break.

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Regroup

After that, we stopped at the Pub with the Cold Beer. The catch was that here you’d eat home grown chicken and drink really cold beer.

Their beers were really really cold.

The place was owned by a couple in their mid thirties. They were nice and friendly. Their daughter was riding around a bike in the yard.

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mine now

She quickly made friends with David and temporarily appropriated his phone.

Apparently Crossy Road was her favourite game.

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It had rained and stopped, and then rained and stopped again.

In the meantime, we had an amazing home cooked meal and chatted with fellow travellers.

People came from everywhere around the world.

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It's the life

The next place was absolutely breathe-taking.

Mountains, rice paddies, grazing cows and a dirt road.

The owner lady at the farm stay near by was kind enough to lend us some bikes.

We explored to our hearts content.

Photo taken by Hong.

The fields were full of life.

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On the BIKES

We rode our bikes along the bumpy dirt road to the river bank.

The clouds tumbled in the distance.

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We turned and headed west, towards the sunset.

This time the mountains tumbled in the distances.

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Found it

This is it! This is what I’ve been look for.

David extolled the moment, almost lyrically.

We’d have to agree with him.

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If only for this alone, Vietnam was worth it.

We agreed.

Let’s take a photo! I said.

Snap. 35 degrees of happiness.

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After we got back, I had some tea and literally watched the cows come home. Villagers were laughing and playing volleyball in the distance. They are a very friendly, genuine and happy bunch.

What a perfect day. I thought.

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Day 7: Into the Darkness

Today we set out for the caves. To be honest we had no idea what to expect.

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What was clear was that we were going deep into the mountains. The roads became winding and narrower. After we got off the car at the park we had to hike up a good 800m.

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Boom

The cool air from the cave suddenly struck us as we approached the entrance.

As we descended down the slippery wooden stairs, we realized that this was something special.

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It’s hard to describe what you feel in the cave. You don’t see what are you stepping on. Everything echoes in there. And the entire place was cool, even cold.

An interesting break from the otherwise scorching outdoors.

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Training in progress

Next morning we set out early to catch the overnight train to Hanoi. Unlike the first train we took, this one is a sleeper train. But we’ve been told to not keep our hopes up.

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I had expected the griminess and lack of space. The good thing was that the train was also air conditioned.

What I did not expect was how humid it was. Water droplets were forming on the metal surfaces.

I saw a bug crawl across the ceiling, as I slept on the top bunk. To combat this I doused my clothes and the comforter in bug repellent and forced myself to sleep. I didn’t think the others slept as well as I did.

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Day 8: Hanoi to Ha Long

Things got a lot better once we got off the train and were picked up by a luxury van early in Hanoi.

It would take us to the port where we would board a ship to Ha Long Bay.

Apocalypse Now was playing in the van for some reason. We felt the urge to document this moment. As we drove along the city, life outside filled the frame like a painting.

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OUT AND A-BOAT

Things got even better when we got on our small cruise.

This is Vietnam Impressive.

I remarked as I checked into my room. Dang. I jumped right on the bed.

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They started feeding us while we enjoyed the lovely views.

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Ha Long Bay is definitely a place in I’d like to revisit.

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Night fell quickly. During dinner, our tour guide and the crew came out to greet us.

They also sang a song.

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Day 9: making moves

Our guide led us off the ship and onto a small island.

We hiked, looked at caves, swam in the ocean and kayaked.

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Photo taken by Hong.
Photo taken by Hong.

Day 10

By day 10, we had wrapped up the cruise excursion and travelled back to Hanoi for a flight to Bangkok.

But that’s a story for another day.

This is actually a picture from day 8, but I think it sums up our trip fairly well. In two words, it was:

Vietnam Impressive.
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Footnote: Most photos were taken by me on a Canon 60D + a f3.5-5.6 18-200mm lens and an iPhone 6. Some were taken by Hong on his Sony NEX-5N. A few were taken by David on his iPhone 6S.
Vietnam