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And the Road Goes Ever On…

Written by Jeff Drake
1 · 29 · 23
On her way to a market near Hanoi!
The Road Goes Ever On…

As promised, here is some information about the main part of our 2023 trip to Vietnam!

In 2007, Lisa and I only visited Saigon, Dalat, Hoi An, and the Mekong Delta. This was just a taste of the country and we’re happy to finally be going back where we can drink our fill of this beautiful place! (BTW, Saigon has, of course, since been renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCM), and although this name is used, locals still refer to it as Saigon. It will always be Saigon to me.)

This time we’re starting in northern Vietnam and heading south. It’s funny, but the only time I ever dreamed of finding myself in what used to be called, North Vietnam, was a nightmare of being captured in the war. LOL. My, how things have changed!

Vietnam is now a hot tourist destination and you can go to Youtube and find lots of videos showing the beauty that awaits there. So many stunning landscapes!

We will fly from PDX, stop over in South Korea, then land in Hanoi. We get in late, but fortunately OAT will have a driver there to meet us and take us to our hotel.

Our trip has two parts, the pre-trip extension, which takes us into the hills north of Hanoi to meet the hill peoples and lasts 8 days (1 day is travel), and the main part of the trip which begins in Hanoi and goes south, which covers 20 days.

I discussed our pre-trip extension here, so now I will focus on just the main part of our tour.

After our return to Hanoi from Sapa, we will spend a couple more days exploring the city. Hanoi is not a small city. The population of Hanoi is over 5 million. Like many Asian cities, Hanoi is a mix of ancient architecture, modern architecture, and ultra-modern architecture, which gives it kind of an eclectic feel, I think. Our guide will introduce us to the history of Vietnam and its culture.

OAT is better these days at giving tour members free time to investigate places on our own. For those who can’t think of what they want to see or do, the guide always has suggestions. This is usually not a problem for Lisa and me. Our free time will include a visit to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the former home of Senator John McCain when he was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. Other than this, all of our Hanoi sight-seeing will be visiting either historical or cultural venues. Our tour includes meeting some local artists, a cyclo-rickshaw ride through the Old Quarter, and visits to nearby villages.

Oh, did I mention that there will be food, too. Food? Hell yeah! Travel vloggers visiting Hanoi say there is a food stall every 5 feet. And having watched umpteen videos on Hanoi, I think we’d have to agree. And the food is cheap. I’m not saying it’s low-priced. I’m saying, “cheap”! Do you like Vietnamese beef noodle soup, called “pho” (pronounced “fuh”)? In Hanoi you can get a large bowl of pho for between $1-$1.65! Food and non-alcoholic drinks will not break the bank in Vietnam. If you eat at a restaurant instead of a food stall, you can buy a 3-course meal for two people for around $21 dollars US. Be warned though, from what we’re seeing on Youtube, all of the portion sizes are large! So much food! Lisa and I keep saying, “That looks delicious, but we’d have to split it.”

If you like to drink beer, a bottle of local brew will cost about .85 US, whereas a bottle of imported beer will break your wallet at $1.85 per bottle. If the reports we’re seeing now are true, it can be pretty good. Or not. I see that the beer we soldiers used to drink in Vietnam 50 years ago, 333 beer, is still around. Wow! We called it “bombedy-bomb beer,” because 333 in Vietnamese is Ba-mui-ba. We all theorized that it was made with formaldehyde a.k.a., embalming fluid! I’ll have to try it, just for old times’ sake! Fortunately, there are a number of beers available, both domestic and imported.  Mixed drinks cost an average of $6 US in Vietnam, which is like happy hour pricing in the states. A bottle of wine will run you around $16 US. I’m thinking I’ll be drinking more beer this trip than I usually do, given the pricing. I just hope they have some good IPA, and I’ve heard they do!

Of course, these days, the national drink in Vietnam is also one of their leading exports: coffee! People rave about their coffee and say it is among the best coffee in the world. An espresso will run about $1.40US, while a cappuccino will break the bank at $2.00 US. Sadly, I stopped drinking coffee as the caffeine increases the severity of my essential tremors. While I might be willing to shake more due to drinking a wonderful cup of coffee, it apparently is bothersome to others around me, so now, when it comes to coffee, I just say, “No.” And yeah, I really miss it!

When we’re done with Hanoi, we are off to the world famous Halong Bay, where we will board a boat for a cruise around Halong Bay. They call the boat a luxury “junk” sailboat (think Chinese junk), but from what we can tell after watching Youtube videos, the so-called “sail” that adorns the ship is just for looks. However, the boat has very nice accommodations and reportedly excellent food. We’ll spend two nights on the junk while we tool around Halong Bay, visit some amazing caves and famous beaches.

After Halong Bay, we’re off to a very famous city: Hue (pronounced “way”). This city was the scene of the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War (5,000 civilians killed; 668 US killed, 3,707 wounded). There is some great war footage of this battle on Youtube. Hue is on the banks of the Perfume River (love the name). I’m looking forward to seeing the Citadel, which is the center of the city and considered the prize worth dying for during the war. It’ll be interesting for me, as this was not the war that I ever knew. The battle for Hue was a fight in the streets, using tanks and artillery. This was very different from the jungle warfare that I knew.

While in Hue, we’ll visit a famous market and have lunch with a group of nuns who like to meditate, I guess. Vietnam has around 7,000,000 Catholics, which is the 5th largest Catholic population in Asia. But they have other religions, too: Folk 73.2%; Buddhism12.2%\; Christianity 8.3%; Caodaism 4.8%; Hoahaoism 1.4%; Others 0.1%.

“Caodaism” (pronounced “cow-yai-ism”) is an interesting religion. It was created in 1926 and contains elements from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and spiritualism. Apparently a group looked at these religions and said, “We’re not all that different!” and then combined them into one. LOL! Hoahaoism is another Buddhist sect. Along our trip we have an optional tour to watch a Caodai ceremony, if we are interested. Neither of us are, so we’ll be skipping it.

Departing Hue, we’re off next to a place we visited in 2007, the city of Hoi An. We loved this place! It has an ancient part of the city (Ancient Town, lol), which is full of beautiful old, restored buildings. Hoi An was a very important trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries. Its state of preservation is what makes this town so special and a UNESCO World Heritage site as well. It is located on the very wide Red River, where there is a very nice beach. Hoi An is an extremely popular tourist destination. You can get hand-made clothes here for unbelievable prices. Want a hand-made suit? That’ll be $90-$150 please (depending on material). Handmade shirts? No problem, $8-$14 each, please. A hand-made dress? No problem, $18 please! If you’re worried about the quality, just remember that almost all of the clothes worn around the world these days is made in Vietnam! Can you get poor quality? Sure, you just have to be sensible and go to a reputable tailor. Best research it before you go!

After Hoi An, we’re off to Nha Trang. This will be especially interesting for me! When I first arrived in Nha Trang in 1970, I was put in a helicopter unit barracks overnight while waiting for my flight to Dalat. I’d only been in-country for a little over a week. That night was very memorable. I didn’t sleep much, as a few of the chopper crew members were prone to screaming in their sleep (something I would eventually do myself a couple years later). It must have been about 3am when I was wakened by a crew that just got back from a mission and were fighting amongst themselves. I’m talking fist-fight! They were really angry and some were crying. They were really pissed at someone who apparently didn’t do his job regarding flight chopper maintenance and as a result (they said), someone died that night. I remember thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” Little did I know.

This place, this 1970 hell hole, is now a very popular beach resort! We’ll tour the town and have free time to spend on the beach, which is beautiful. I never swam in the beach in Nha Trang, but did get the chance at the beach in Cam Ranh Bay. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember dropping acid with my buddy and going swimming. The barracuda I saw convinced me that maybe swimming there wasn’t a good idea! And yes, the barracuda were real, although not really a danger, but I didn’t know that. I just remember the beach sparking like it was showered with diamonds. Quite beautiful.

Next we are off to my old haunt, Dalat. We’re only there two days, so we are going to skip the 2nd day morning’s activities and get a car and driver to take us to Pr’Line Mountain. There I will finally be able to access the site, knowing full well that there is only one building left standing. It doesn’t matter to me, as I will remember the place as it was in 1970, with the help of some photos I will bring with me on my tablet. In 2007 I couldn’t get into the site because it was a government TV station, but now the station is gone and all that is left is a cell tower and a couple guys to maintain it. A buddy of mine who was there in 2020 said he got in with zero problems. Afterwards, Lisa and I may have our driver take us down the mountain to Don Xuon or anywhere else he thinks might be interesting for us to visit.

Lastly, we leave Dalat for Saigon. While in Saigon we will do the Mekong River tour (again) by boat. In 2007, this was quite a treat, so we’re not sure how much things may have changed, but we’re expecting it to be similar to 2007, as they hit the same kind of places e.g., a farm, a kiln, etc. There is some wonderful people-watching to be had on the Mekong River! Folks live their entire lives in boats sometimes. Lots of kids, shopping, boats, it can be quite noisy, but it sure is fascinating!

We are really looking forward to our return to Vietnam!

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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