Expeditions / Vietnam & Thailand

Days 1-3: Bangkok

It took exactly 28 hours to travel from my door in Orinda, California, to my hotel in in Bangkok, Thailand. My finacee, Lauren, and I had decided to take a trip to Thailand and Vietnam because we both had some time off during the summer of 2015. We flew out of San Francisco, via Singapore Airlines, at 1:20 AM in the early morning hours of June 24. After brief stops in Hong Kong and Singapore, we finally landed in Bangkok.

Bangkok has a lot of similarities to the other major southeast Asian city I’d visited: Phnom Penh. It has areas marked by abject povery unfairly juxtaposed against patches of incredible opulence. In every part of the city that can afford it, overworked air conditioners groan with the effort of keeping their people insulated from the heat and humidity outside.

Catching a taxi in Bangkok airport was easier than expected. Though a few people tried to offer us a ride, it was easy to locate the official taxi kiosk, get an assignment slip, and find a licensed cab. The ride to our hotel, the Courtyard Bangkok, took about 45 minutes and cost 450 baht ($13). The Courtyard Bangkok isn’t much to look at from the outside, but the interior is quite nice. The rooms are well-appointed, if a little plain, and extremely comfortable. It’s in a very good location and has a beautiful pool and a nice fitness center.

After checking in, we left our hotel and walked down the street about 15 minutes to Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s Central Park. Lumphini Park is quite beautiful, full of green space with a lazy stream flowing through it and the occasional monitor lizard crossing the road that runs in a broad, sweeping loop around the park. We followed the loop, mostly, as we made our way around the park, taking in the sights and enjoying its peaceful atmosphere. At the southwest corner of the park is a statue of King Rama VI, which commemorates his opening of the park in 1942. It’s definitely worth swinging by if you’re visiting the park, but nothing you absolutely need to see when visiting Bangkok.

A monitor lizard in Lumphini Park
A monitor lizard in Lumphini Park

We continued our walk through the park, completing our circuit of the main walking, jogging, and bicycling path. There’s an outdoor gym in the park with a remarkably complete set of exercise machines, a beautiful clocktower, and even a school inside the park boundaries. We made our way back to the hotel and ate dinner.

Before bed, we decide to visit Centralworld, a gigantic shopping mall (according to Wikipedia, the sixth-largest in the world). The mall lives up to its reputation for enormity; it’s a maze of stores on several floors that would take days to explore fully. It’s also hugely expensive; prices were about what I’d expect to pay in San Francisco. We bought dessert and some sundries at the mall, but nothing else. Then we walked back to the hotel and went to bed.

The second day of our trip dawned mostly cloudy, but (as usual for Bangkok in the summer) still warm (high 80s) and humid. This would be our only full day in Bangkok, and our primary opportunity to see the sights the city offers. We got up early and took a cab to the Grand Palace. One of the biggest shocks for us during our brief time in Bangkok was how difficult it is to find an honest cab driver. Our Lonely Planet guide to the city indicated that taxi drivers often try to negotiate a flat fee that’s about 3 times the meter price, but that simply saying you want them to turn on the meter should rectify the situation. That was not our experience, with the exception of the taxi we took from the aiport. On the morning of our second day in Bangkok, we asked the hotel to call us a cab, but the driver insisted that we pay 300 baht for the ride, despite our best efforts to ask him to turn on the meter. In retrospect, we estimated that 300 baht is about 2-3 times what the ride should have cost. Lesson learned: cab drivers in Bangkok will use every reason they can think of (“The traffic is bad” or “that’s really far outside the city, so it’ll be hard for me to find another fare”) to try and suck you into paying a rate that’s much higher than the meter fare. The only way we found to make them turn on the meter: threaten to leave the car and find another ride.

The Grand Palace complex is Bangkok’s most popular site. It houses several temples and religious buildings as well as the palace and a few government buildings. Every structure on the palace grounds is ornately decorated and stunningly beautiful. We visited all of them. The religious buildings on the raised terrace to your left as you enter were particularly beautiful. One of the complex’s main attractions, the Emerald Buddha, was a little underwhelming. The Buddha is only about 2 feet tall, and he sits on a raised platform well above and far away from the viewing area. The palace complex was also absolutely packed with tourists. It was hard to find spots for photos without a swarm of other visitors in the shot. Other attractions within the complex were more impressive; there are several religious and government buildings that boast intricate ornamentation and beautiful architecture.

Temples at the Grand Palace
Temples at the Grand Palace

We left the palace and walked in a big loop up Maha Rat Road, then turned right in front of Thammasat University, crossed Sanam Luang (the royal field), and then right again on Ratchadamnoen Road. We followed the road back down past the far side of the Grand Palace complex to Wat Pho. Wat Pho is another large complex, with numerous religious buildings, hundreds of Buddhas, and a massage school. Our first stop was the reclining Buddha, which at 15 meters (50 feet) high and 46 meters (151 feet) long is truly gigantic. We made our way around the outside of the complex to the massage school, where we booked one hour Thai massages for 420 (about $14) each. The massage was a welcome break—it felt wonderful, and it was great to be inside out of the heat and humidity for a while.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

After the massages, we continued exploring Wat Pho, visiting most of the buildings on the site. Most of them are worth visiting; there are several temples with impressive (if not as awesome as the enormous reclining Buddha) Buddha statues; temple courtyards lined with more Buddha statues, and a series of pagodas. Wat Pho was much less crowded than the Grand Palace, and it had a much more peaceful atmosphere that made for a more enjoyable visit.

When we left Wat Pho, we turned left on Thai Wang Alley, then left again on Maha Rat Road. After a few wrong turns, we made our way out to Arun Residence, a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya River, almost directly across from Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). The Arun Residence has a rooftop deck that’s supposed to be a great spot to have a drink and take in the views of the river. Unfortunately, it’s not open for lunch, but the main restaurant downstairs also has a deck right on the river. We ate a lovely lunch there; the food was very good, and the view of the river made it quite a pleasant spot.

The view from the Arun Residence
The view from the Arun Residence

About a block north of the Arun Residence is a ferry stop. We paid 3 baht each for a ticket to Wat Arun, right across the river. A short boat ride took us to Wat Arun. Much smaller than either Wat Pho or the Grand Palace, Wat Arun is nonetheless one of Bangkok’s most iconic sights. Unfortunately, it was being restored while we were there, so its tall spires were blanketed with scaffolding. We also couldn’t climb any higher than the first floor, and one of Wat Arun’s biggest attractions is that it’s the only wat in Bangkok that tourists are allowed to climb. It only took us a few minutes to circumnavigate the wat on its first level, and we soon returned to the ferry stop. We rode the ferry back to the other side of the river and caught a cab back to the hotel.

The next morning, we woke up around 8 and hopped on the BTS Sky Train. Bangkok’s public train system is new, clean, and efficient. It took us about half an hour to get to Mo Chit, the end of the line. It’s a very short walk from the Mo Chit Station through Chatuchak Park to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The largest market in Thailand, the Chatuchak market is a seemingly endless maze of temporary stalls and more permanent shops that sell almost anything you could possibly imagine. There are all the typical Thailand souvenirs you’ll see throughout the country, but there are also flowers, dishes, clothes, books, watches, luggage, and even animals. Supposedly it’s a great place to buy exotic pets, but we didn’t see anything too unusual: just puppies, rabbits, and Guinea pigs.

When our curiosity and shopping proclivities had been sated, we took the Sky Train back to the hotel. We checked out and took a taxi to the airport. In line with our experience with Bangkok, the driver tried desperately to avoid turning on the meter, agreeing to do so only when we were at the point of physically getting out of the car.

Days 4-7: Phuket

The flight from Bangkok to Phuket is only about an hour, but it took a little longer for us because our plane had to circle the Phuket airport for about fifteen minutes before we could land. A large island along Thailand’s southwestern coast, Phuket combines inland jungles with stretches of stunningly beautiful beaches. Unfortunately, it was both hazy and cloudy the day we arrived, so we couldn’t see much of Phuket from the air.

When the plane finally landed, we took a cab at the airport to our next hotel, the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa. One of the jewels of the Marriott collection, the JW Marriott is an all-inclusive resort located on Mai Khao beach on the northern part of the island. The location has benefits and drawbacks. For one, Mai Khao beach is absolutely gorgeous. It’s Phuket’s longest beach and is located within a national park. In fact, the JW Phuket is the only hotel allowed on the beach; there are other hotels in the area that say they’re on Mai Khao beach, but they are set well back from the shore. Unfortunately, Mai Khao is on the opposite side of the island from Phuket Town, the nerve center of the island and the base for most of Phuket’s tour companies. You can certainly arrange all of your adventures through the hotel, but we chose not to. The result was that it was a long (and relatively expensive) ride into town to meet up with our tours.

Mi Khao Beach near the JW Marriott
Mi Khao Beach near the JW Marriott

As soon as we arrived at the JW Phuket, a friendly staff member checked us in, and another showed us to our room—a deluxe room on the ground floor with a pool view. The JW has three pools: a quiet adults only pool at the northern end of the property, the main pool in the midddle, and the south pool at the far end (which features a swim-up bar). We sampled each of the pools, and enjoyed the happy hour (two-for-one on most drinks) at the poolside bar near the main pool.

Then we were faced with deciding where to eat dinner. The JW Phuket has six restaurants and five bars on-site. It’s also a very short walk into Turtle Village, a small shopping center that has a British-style pub and a restaurant called the Coffee Club. We settled on Ganja Taste, the resort’s upscale Thai restaurant. It was delicious, if a little overpriced. We walked back to our room and fell, exhausted, into bed.

We hadn’t scheduled anything for the next two days, so we tried to take full advantage of everything the JW Phuket has to offer. We took a “yogilates” (combination of pilates and yoga, but really mostly yoga) class at the health club. We swam in each of the three pools, and we frequented the happy hours. We also swam in the ocean, though swimming in the ocean on Mai Khao beach in the monsoon season (April to October) can be daunting at times. The hotel has flags set out along the path through the resort that parallels the beach: green flags mean it’s OK to swim; yellow means only experienced swimmers; and red means no swimming. We were disappointed to see red flags flying down the entire length of the resort. Fortunately, there is a designated swimming area in front of the lifeguard station at the southern end of the resort, even when the red flags are flying.

Lauren and me at Mi Khao Beach
Lauren and me at Mi Khao Beach

The water felt great; it was a balmy 82 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the ocean can be a bit menacing, especially at high tide. The waves weren’t huge, but they were powerful, and at high tide they tend to crash right on the beach, making entering and exiting the water a little difficult. The beach is also very steep, so the waves sweep back out to sea with some force. Once you’re beyond the break, though, you can enjoy swimming in the delightfully warm water. At low tide, it’s even easier, as the waves seem a little gentler and tend to break a little further from shore.

After two full days relaxing at the resort, it was time to explore Phuket beyond Mai Khao beach. Our first excursion was Super Divers’ PADI Discover SCUBA Diving course. Lauren and I are not certified divers, and Lauren had never been diving before, so we had to dive with an instructor the entire day. We had an absolutely magical day, and it started out with a sighting of three minke whales off our bow: a mother with two calves. The whales seemed to enjoy our attention; they spouted and dived around the boat for a good twenty minutes while everyone on board crowded around and watched.

As our dive boat, the MV Mermaid, continued to steam towards the islands off of Phuket, our instructor, Jon, began briefing us on our day. He explained the basics of diving and took us through a brief explanation of our equipment and the concepts and signals we’d need to know. Soon after that, we were at our first dive site, a bay off the island of Racha Noi. We put on our gear: wetsuits, tanks, weight belts, masks; and stepped off of the dive deck into the 82 degree, stunningly clear, aquamarine water. Our instructor, Jon immediately told us to inflate our buoyancy control devices (BCDs) and swim to the shallow water near the shore. Once there, we practiced ascending and descending, clearing our masks and regulators, and the hand signals we would use to communicate while under water.

Lauren and me SCUBA diving
Lauren and me SCUBA diving

Once he was satisfied that we were proficient with the basics, Jon guided us further out to a reef. Most of the reefs off of Phuket were severely damaged by the tsunami in 2004; some were completely destroyed. The reefs of Racha Noi seem to have recovered well; we saw large schools of colorful tropical fish feeding on the coral and a few eels. The conditions couldn’t have been better: the water was an incredibly clear blue, with a  visibility at 12 meters down of 30 meters (about 100 feet).

After about 50 minutes in the water, we were back on the boat, where the crew served us a delicious lunch. As we ate, the Mermaid steamed to the other end of the bay for our second dive. This time we didn’t need to spend the first part of our dive learning the basics, and Jon took us straight to the reef. The fish were amazing again, but the highlight this time was a majestic green sea turtle who swam with us for most of the dive. He would spend time looking for food on the reef, and surface occasionally for air. He didn’t seem upset at all by our presence. In fact, at one point he swam up right behind me and began gnawing gently on my tank straps. Two of the diving instructors would later tell me that they’d never seen a turtle do that before.

The green sea turtle
The green sea turtle

Eventually, though, we had to leave our chelonian friend behind. We continued diving along the reef, rounding a point to find the dive boat waiting for us. This time we had a longer ride between dives; the Mermaid took us to Racha Yai, another island in the Indian Ocean south of Phuket. The main attraction for divers off of Racha Yai is a dive boat that was intentionally wrecked to restore the reef and attract marine life. Unfortunately, the wreck is too deep for uncertified divers (it’s about 22 meters down, and our limit was 12 meters), and the reefs near Racha Yai were completely destroyed by the tsunami. Efforts to restore them are underway: there are dozens of large concrete cubes on the ocean floor, stacked one or two high, to attract the growth of coral and other marine life. It was fun to swim through the cubes, and we saw some beautiful fish and a couple of stunning moray eels, but after the magic of our second dive, the third was a little disappointing. After that it was a long ride back to the pier in Phuket, and then a long drive back to the hotel. We walked into Turtle village and had dinner at the Coffee Club.

The next morning brought another early start and a car ride (though not quite as long as the drive the day before) to Royal Phuket Marina. There we met our guide for Simba Sea Trips’ Phang Nga and Beyond tour. To the northeast of Phuket in the Strait of Malacca, Phang Nga Bay is dotted with awesome limestone islands and cliffs, which rise out of the water in impossible shapes. Along with about ten other tourists, we boarded a large speedboat and set out to explore the bay and its islands. Our first stop was Koh Phanak, a small island that rises steeply from the blue water of the bay. Its main attraction is a large limestone cave, so we stepped off the boat and entered the cavern. The cave itself is quite large, studded with stalactites and stalagmites, and its far end opens onto a small lagoon of beautiful milky blue water, which the island surrounds entirely.

The lagoon o nKoh Phanak
The lagoon on Koh Phanak

We returned to the speedboat and flew across the bay to Koh Hong, a group of small islands with a floating restaurant at their center. We disembarked and boarded small inflatable kayaks, with two tourists and guide in each boat. The guide, who didn’t really speak English at all, paddled us around the beautiful islands and caves of Koh Hong. Then it was on to Koh Phing Kan, also known as “James Bond Island” because it was where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed. Then we stopped briefly for a swim at Treasure Island, where a limestone ledge that sinks almost to the sea level conceals a beautiful lagoon.

Lauren and me at James Bond Island
Lauren and me at James Bond Island

Another trip in the speedboat took us to Koh Yao Noi, a secluded island often described as the Phuket of thirty years ago. Our group boarded a pair of rickety trucks that drove us through the jungle and past rice farms, coconut farms, and rural homes to a restaurant on the beach. After a delicious lunch, we cruised to another small island with a long sandbar off of its coast. We relaxed and swam for a while, before heading to our final destination: another small island where would snorkel from the boat.

After our incredible scuba diving experience the day before, the snorkeling couldn’t have been more disappointing. The water was murky and sandy, so that it was impossible to see more than about eight feet beneath the surface. We did see a few clownfish feeding on a reef, but the low visibility and lack of exciting sea life made it feel like a waste of time. To cap things off, the bay was infested with jellyfish. Lauren was stung three times, and I was stung once (on my ear); the jellyfish were very hard to see due to the opaque water. We returned to the boat and settled in for the ride back to Phuket. We returned to the JW Marriott around 4:30 PM. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool, and we had dinner at the poolside bar. As we relaxed, a stunning sunset celebrated our last night in Phuket.

Sunset on our last night in Phuket
Sunset on our last night in Phuket

Days 8-10: Ho Chi Minh City

The next morning, we took a quick dip in the ocean, followed by a final swim in the pool. We returned to our room, showered, grabbed our bags, and caught a taxi to the airport. An hour later, we were back in Bangkok, where caught a connecting flight to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but known by its former name to many of its residents).

The taxi ride from the airport was terrifying at times; Saigon is a city of about 8 million people, but they own about 6 million motor scooters. And scooter drivers seem to believe that the rules of the road don’t apply to them. They will ignore anything from lane lines to stop signs, and even red lights. Additionally, the Vietnamese transport whatever they possibly can on those tiny scooters: entire families, artwork, refrigerators, and livestock were only a few of the more bizarre things we saw crammed onto a single tiny scooter.

After a very comfortable night at the Renaissance Riverside Saigon, a guide met us the next morning to take us to Ben Tre, a city on the Mekong Delta. There we boarded a ship that would take us down the river. Our first stop was a coconut processing plant, though the word “plant” suggests significantly more development than there actually was. A huge pile of coconuts lay near the shore of the river, where they had been deposited by barges. Three or four men, stripped to the waist, stood in the heat, slightly shaded by parasols, and broke the coconuts on wooden stakes. Inside the “factory” (really more a large shaded area with no walls), five or six more men and women processed the remaining parts of the coconut, from the inner shell to the meat to the water.

A man shells coconuts
A man shells coconuts

A short boat ride took us to the opposite bank of the river, where we got on bikes and road a little ways down a road to a brick factory. After a longer ride through rural Vietnam, we reached a rice noodle factory, where rice is first turned into a paste, which is dried on wooden platters in the sun and the ground into noodles. After a snack, we returned to the boat. We continued meandering down the Mekong, stopping for lunch at the Mango Home (the headquarters of the company that organized our tour—Mango Tours), and finally taking another short bike ride to a house owned by a former Viet Cong soldier and his wife, who makes rice paper. We saw a short demonstration of how rice paper is made, and we even got to try making it ourselves before we left. We returned to our hotel, where we had dinner and took a swim in the Renaissance’s rooftop pool, which has incredible views of the city.

Saigon from the rooftop pool
Saigon from the rooftop pool

In the morning, a guide met us at the hotel to take us to the Cu Chi tunnels. Initially created by communist forces fighting the French in the 1940s, the Cu Chi tunnels were expanded to a network of some 150 miles during the Vietnam war. Viet Cong soldiers used them as shelters, transportation and communications routes, hospitals, and food and weapons caches. Today, the tunnels are the site of a museum. The tour begins with an introductory video, really a propaganda film from 1967, that is unabashedly anti-American (it celebrates a number of Viet Cong soldiers who won the award “American Killer-Hero”). There are exhibits showing what entrances to the tunnels looked like, how the Viet Cong disguised their air vents, traps that were set for enemy soldiers, American weaponry, bomb craters, and the tunnels themselves. Though the parts of the tunnels that visitors can enter have been slightly enlarged, they are still no more than about four feet tall; visitors have to bend at the waist to walk through them, and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic.

A tourist bends to walk through the tunnels
A tourist bends to walk through the tunnels

We drove back to Saigon for an excellent lunch at Viet Village Restaurant. Then it was on to our next stop, the Independence Palace. Originally constructed by the French as the seat of their colonial government, the palace became the seat of Japanese colonialism during World War II, was then handed back to the French, and finally became the seat of the independent government of South Vietnam. Two North Vietnamese tanks breached the palace gates on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War. Today, the palace is still used for some official state functions, though it is primarily a tourist attraction. It boasts grand ballrooms and meeting rooms, a movie theater, and quarters for visiting dignitaries. On the upper floors, a series of offices and meeting rooms are still decorated with maps showing the state of the war in the mid-1970s. In the basement are several reinforced bunker-like rooms full of antiquated radio equipment and more maps and reports on the progress of the war.

Independence Palace
Independence Palace

Our final stop for the day was the War Remnants Museum. When it opened in September of 1975, the War Remnants Museum was called the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.” In 1990 it was renamed the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression;” when President Clinton visited in 1995 to normalize relations, it was renamed once again to its current appellation. Outside the museum is a large collection of American military power: tanks, artillery, helicopters, and jets. The inside is mostly photos, with captions, as well as some short written accounts. Most of the exhibits depict atrocities committed by the American military or South Vietnamese army, such as the My Lai Massacre or the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange. The top floor, however, includes a large exhibition entitled Requiem, which was donated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and which commemorates the efforts of the journalists and photographers who covered the war.

The Cu Chi Tunnels, Independence Palace, and War Remnants Museum revealed an intriguing contrast in attitudes towards America and Americans. The exhibits at these attractions were created by the generation that had seen firsthand the horrors of the Vietnam War and that, not without reason, resented (and even hated) America for the destruction that had been wreaked upon its country. Thus the videos, panels, and displays are often blatantly anti-American propaganda. There is no mention anywhere of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong war crimes, mistreatment of prisoners of war, or the brutal reeducation camps that killed 125,000 South Vietnamese in the war’s aftermath. By contrast, everyone we met, even older people, were warm and welcoming, were interested in and curious about America, and refreshingly willing talk openly about their country’s history.

We ate a quick dinner at the hotel, and then we ventured out into the streets of Saigon to the Ben Thanh night market. By day, Ben Thanh is an enormous building—it takes up an entire city block. By night, the interior of the market is closed, but merchants set up stalls on the streets outside. The selection isn’t nearly as impressive as the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, or even the market’s selection during the day, but it was still fun to explore.

The next morning, we met a local student for a walking tour of Saigon. We started at Notre Dame, a cathedral constructed from materials imported from France between 1863 and 1880. Then we visited the post office, opera house, and fine arts museum. Finally, our guide took us to a pagoda nestled in the middle the bustling metropolis, as well as a large market. When we returned to the hotel, we picked up our bags and took a cab to the airport, where we caught a short flight to Hanoi.

Days 11-15: Hanoi

Upon reaching Hanoi, we took a taxi to the JW Marriot Hanoi, which is new and beautiful, but far from the center of town. It’s really a business hotel that caters to the national convention center nearby. But we were treated very well, and it worked out really well for our trip because its location outside of central Hanoi helped us avoid the city’s worst traffic. In the morning, we took a long drive to Mai Chau, a rural district in the hills southwest of Hanoi. The area is primarily populated by the Ben Lac, an ethnic minority, that subsists largely on farming. The drive is about three and a half hours, so we stopped briefly at a small market where we ate some corn on the cob and sticky rice. At Mai Chau, we rode bicycles through the villages perched beneath rolling hills. We ate lunch at a local restaurant, walked around the towns and farms, and then drove back to Hanoi.

Mai Chau
Mai Chau

The next day involved another long car ride, this time in the opposite direction, to the northeast. We visited Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction. It’s similar to Phang Nga Bay, in that both bodies of water are dotted by large limestone cliffs. Ha Long Bay is larger, has more islands, and those islands are often larger and more fantastic than those of Phang Nga.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

A junk picked us up from Ha Long pier and took us out into the bay, a wonderland of limestone cliffs rising impossibly from the water. We ate lunch on board, and watched the incredible islands slip past until we reached Amazing Cave. Aptly named, Amazing Cave is a gigantic cavern from which stalactites hang ominously. The hike through the cave is well worth the effort, and the entrances and exits of the cave offer spectacular views of the bay below.

Amazing Cave
Amazing Cave

When we left Amazing Cave, our junk took us Ti Top Island. Most tourists do an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay; it’s far enough from Hanoi, and the bay is large enough that it’s difficult to see some of its most important sites without spending a long time on the water. We arranged a special tour that was a few hours longer than the typical Ha Long day trip, so we could visit Ti Top island even though it’s outside the area usually visited on the day trips. Once we reached the island, we hiked up a long staircase to a pavilion at the top of the island. It was hot and humid, and we were both sweating profusely. But our effort paid off when we saw the views from the top.

The view from Ti Top Island
The view from Ti Top Island

Back at the shore, we took a swim to cool off, then returned to the boat. We steamed back to the pier and disembarked. On the drive home, we stopped at a pearl market, where we got to see how pearls are inserted and extracted, as well as a very impressive selection of gems. We got to see a beautiful sunset from the car, and then we returned to Hanoi.

The following day we got a break from our long car rides. We took a taxi into town to see Hanoi itself. We started at Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which is one of the odder tourist sites I’ve ever visited. The leader of the Vietnamese communist movement and celebrated as the father of the country, Ho Chi Minh was a modest man who wished to be cremated after his death. He hoped that his ashes would be scattered in the north, south, and middle of the country. Instead, he was embalmed, and his body remains on display in the mausoleum. After entering the mausoleum complex, you follow a long, winding path around the large complex to the mausoleum itself. The tomb is kept cold and dark, and visitors follow a path around it while armed guards stand at each corner of the body. Once you exit the tomb, there are several other attractions on the site, including the presidential palace (which was offered to Ho, though he declined it), Ho’s house (a much more modest home built on stilts in the style favored by one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities), the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and the One-Pillar Pagoda.

We left the mausoleum and walked to the Temple of Literature, a tranquil Confucian temple in the center of Hanoi. The temple is a series of beautifully kept lawns lined with trees, stone courtyards, and temples. It is a remarkably peaceful spot in such a bustling, overwhelming city. Vietnam’s first university, the temple of literature was built in 1070. It still contains records of the university’s graduates, some dating back almost a thousand years.

The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature

A twenty minute walk took us into the French Quarter, a section of Hanoi with broad streets and dominated by colonial architecture. It’s definitely worth walking through the French Quarter; it has some interesting shops, and the wide streets are a welcome break from the narrow, busy lanes that cover most of the rest of the city. We stopped to look at the opera house (in the French Quarter), and for a cold drink at a coffee shop. Then we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, one of several lakes in Hanoi. Hoan Kiem Lake is surrounded by a peaceful park, and the walk around the water was quite pleasant, even in the heat. Near the northern shore is an island with another Confucian temple, Ngoc Son Temple, on it. There’s not much to see at the temple, but it’s worth a visit for the views of the lake.

North of Hoan Kiem lies Hanoi’s old quarter, which is almost the exact opposite of the French Quarter. A warren of narrow, congested streets, the old quarter is fascinating its own way. The streets are two-way, but narrow enough that I would consider most of them single-lane roads. There are sidewalks, but the shops tend to spill out onto them, and people park their scooters on the sidewalk. The result is that cars and scooters pushing in both directions, winding around one another, and pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road as well. Walking through the old quarter is a nerve-wracking exercise.

We stopped at the Gecko Cafe for a delicious and cheap lunch. Then we wandered back out into the old quarter and began looking for a silk shop because I wanted a suit made. Silk shopping in Hanoi can be very hit-or-miss. Shops offer custom-made suits for as little as about $150, and some will offer to make them in 12 hours. Those tend to be pretty low quality, and they’re often said to get measurements wrong. We picked a shop called Silk & Silk because it had a very handsome gray suit in the window. The shopkeeper spoke excellent English. She told me a suit costs $225, and typically takes three days to make. Because they weren’t very busy, though, they told me they could have the suit ready in a day and a half. She took my measurements, I put down a $100 deposit, and we left. We walked a few blocks back to Hoan Kiem lake to have a snack at a coffee shop overlooking the water. Then we made a quick stop at the cathedral in Hanoi (not nearly as large or well-kept as Saigon’s Notre Dame) and took a cab back to the hotel.

In the morning, a tour guide picked us up at our hotel, and we were driven to Hoa Lu, the site of Vietnam’s first capital after its independence from China in 968 A.D. to 1009 (when it was moved to Hanoi). We visited the temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng, a temple devoted to Vietnam’s first emperor following liberation from China. The temple is beautiful and remarkable peaceful, nestled among the rolling green hills.

Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng
Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng

When we left the temple, we got back in the car for the drive to Tam Coc. There we boarded a boat on the Ngô Đồng River, a small craft drive by a guide who paddled us up the river with her feet. The Ngô Đồng winds through the mountains around Tam Coc, and it slides beneath three limestone caves near the village of Van Lam. We followed the river through all three caves, then turned around and rowed back to Van Lam for lunch. The lunch was quite good, and it included goat satays: Van Lam is known for its goat. The goat was better than I expected; it’s a red meat, but not too gamey.

The Ngô Đồng River
The Ngô Đồng River

We took a short drive from Van Lam to Bich Dong pagoda, actually a series of several temples that climb up a mountain and through a cave. We hiked to all of the pagodas, visiting the temple inside the cave, and I hiked well above the last temple to catch a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.

The view from above Bich Dong Pagoda
The view from above Bich Dong pagoda

A drive of about two hours took us back to Hanoi. The driver left us in the Old Quarter, on the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. We walked to an intersection known for restaurants that offer cheap, locally made beer. The beer ranges in price from 5,000 to 15,000 dong. We tried options at both ends of the spectrum. Paying the higher price will get you a larger beer (a full pint instead of a smaller glass) that is slightly higher quality, but we enjoyed the cheaper beer a little more. Our favorite spot didn’t seem to have a name; it was just identified by its address: 29 Lương Ngọc Quyến. When we finished our beers, we walked over to Silk & Silk to pick up my suit, which looked beautiful and fit perfectly. Then we took a cab back to the hotel. That night, we packed up our things and enjoyed our last night in Vietnam. The next morning, we boarded a plane for Singapore, and the long flight back to San Francisco.

Hanoi's
Hanoi’s “Beer Corner”: the intersection of Lương Ngọc Quyến and Tạ Hiền streets

Reviews From This Trip

Lodging

A quick note about lodging on this trip: we stayed in Marriott hotels for the entire trip because I had a huge stash of Marriott Rewards points from an extended business trip the previous year. We also wanted to take advantage of my gold elite status with Marriott. As a result, we did not shop for the best deals on hotels for this trip. Our experience with Marriott was fantastic; they treated us extremely well wherever we went. But please be aware that our decisions on where to stay for this trip do not reflect any sort of comparative search.

  • Courtyard Bangkok: 8/10 (Very good). A great value for a stay in Bangkok (this was the only hotel we paid for–the rest were booked with points). Nice location near Lumphini Park, CentralWorld, and the SkyTrain (though it’s a fairly long ride to the river where the temples and primary tourist attractions are). The hotel doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s very nice and comfortable on the inside: the rooms are well-appointed, the outdoor pool is small but very nice, and the fitness center is surprisingly complete.
  • JW Marriott Phuket: 10/10 (Outstanding). The JW Phuket is an all-inclusive resort set on the beautiful Mai Khao beach on the northwestern edge of Phuket Island. Mai Khao beach is in a national park, and the JW is the only resort allowed to build on the beach (other resorts and hotels that say they’re on Mai Khao are actually set a ways back from the beach). Its three pools, six restaurants, and five bars provide excellent entertainment and good food, though if you want something a little cheaper, Turtle Village is a short walk away. The one downside of staying here is that it’s a long drive into Phuket Town, where most tours start. If you book directly (like we did), the tourism company will probably charge you an extra flat fee (around $40-$50) for transportation to and from the hotel. You can also book tours through the hotel when you get there, but you don’t have the same choice you do if you book directly. The rooms are very nice, and the staff is helpful and friendly. At $200 a night in the offseason, this hotel is an absolute steal.
  • Renaissance Riverside Saigon: 9/10 (Excellent). A very nice hotel with a fantastic location in the heart of Saigon. It has a nice cafe on the ground floor, a rooftop pool with a poolside bar and a great fitness center. The executive lounge on the 18th floor is extremely comfortable and has great views of the river.
  • JW Marriott Hanoi: 9/10 (Excellent). A beautiful brand new hotel with large, comfortable guest rooms, and outstanding pool and fitness facilities, the JW Hanoi is designed to cater to business travelers, especially those visiting the nearby national convention center. It also worked really well for us, because it’s outside central Hanoi. As a result, we avoided much of the (often terrible) traffic through Hanoi when we took our tours outside the city. It’s a perfect choice for tourists who aren’t going to spend more than a day or two in downtown Hanoi. But if you’re planning on spending most of your days in Hanoi itself, it would definitely be better to find a place in the French Quarter.

Excursions & Attractions

  • Lumphini Park: 7/10 (Good). Bangkok’s central park is a beautiful spot of greenery in the middle of a congested city, and the monitor lizards are a sight to see. Definitely worth a visit if you have the time, but not something I’d go out of my way to see.
  • Grand Palace: 8/10 (Very Good). The Grand Palace is a must see in Bangkok, and it’s understandable that it might be the one place you’d go if you only had a few hours. The temples on the site are beautiful, as is the palace. The Emerald Buddha is a little disappointing, and the crowds are heavy even in the offseason.
  • Wat Pho: 9/10 (Excellent). Much more peaceful and less crowded than the Grand Palace, the reclining Buddha is definitely worth a visit, as are the massage school and the various temples that dot the complex grounds.
  • Wat Arun: N/A. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a helpful review, since Wat Arun’s main attractions are its beauty from afar and the views you get when you climb the temple. When we were in Bangkok, it was undergoing restoration and covered in scaffolding. As a result, we couldn’t see what it usually looks from afar, nor could we climb higher than the first floor.
  • Chatuchak Weekend Market: 9/10 (Excellent). A little overwhelming at first, Thailand’s largest market is fascinating once you get over the initial shock. Almost anything you could imagine is for sale, and usually for quite reasonable prices. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything, it’s worth a visit just to see the sheer number and types of items available for sale.
  • Super Divers PADI Discover Scuba Diving: 10/10 (Outstanding). If you’re not a certified diver, this the perfect opportunity to try SCUBA diving in Phuket. The water is beautiful, the boat is nice, and the lunch is good. More importantly, you get to visit incredible dive sites, and our instructor was off-the-charts great. It was a magical day. Highly recommended.
  • Simba Sea Trips Phang Nga and Beyond: 6/10 (Good). A great way to see Phang Nga Bay and some of the islands off of Phuket. Most of the stops are absolutely worthwhile. The caves, James Bond Island, and the boat ride itself are beautiful. Unfortunately, the kayaking at Koh Hong is hot, the guides don’t speak English, and the sights aren’t all that great. The snorkeling is just terrible; visibility is horrible, and many of us got stung by jellyfish. Most unfortunately, the guides didn’t seem concerned about people who were scared of the jellyfish, and they were oddly unwilling to let people stay in the boat despite the danger.
  • Mango Cruises Ben Tre Tour: 8/10 (Excellent). A truly fascinating look at life on the Mekong Delta. Though the boats are actually quite nice, this is a refreshingly genuine look at life in rural Vietnam. Visits to the coconut processing plant, brick factory, rice noodle factory, and villages show you how people really live and work in this part of the world. Our guide was great, and we learned a lot. Truly an eye-opening experience.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels: 7/10 (Very Good). If you’re a war history buff, this is absolutely a must-see. It’s amazing how the Viet Cong lived and fought in this part of the country during the Vietnam War, and much of the tunnel system is very well-preserved. Be prepared for many exhibits that are unapologetically anti-American propaganda. Our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, Independence Palace, and War Remnants Museum was organized through Handspan Tours.
  • Independence Palace: 8/10 (Excellent). An engrossing snapshot of the government of South Vietnam at the end of the war, the Independence Palace is both a beautiful palace and a fascinating historical artifact.
  • War Remnants Museum: 6/10 (Above Average). Interesting not only for the exhibits themselves, but what they reveal about Vietnamese attitudes and memories of the war. Again, be prepared for exhibits that are virulently anti-American.
  • Mai Chau (Footprint Travel Guides): 9/10 (Excellent). A long ride from Hanoi, but absolutely worth it (if you want to break up the drive, you can spend one or two nights in Mai Chau). Mai Chau is a beautiful area, with tiny villages nestled among green mountains and rice paddies spread out in all directions. In addition to the scenic beauty, it’s an excellent opportunity to see life in rural Vietnam.
  • Ha Long Bay (Handspan Tours): 9/10 (Excellent). Another long ride, but again more than worth it for sheer physical beauty. Most people spend a night or two in Ha Long Bay, but Handspan helped us arrange a longer-than-usual day trip so that we got to see parts of the bay usually visited only by overnight trips. Amazing Cave and Ti Top Island were the highlights.
  • Hoa Lu and Tam Coc (Footprint Travel Guides): 9/10 (Excellent). Another unique combination of natural beauty and human history, this trip combines a visit to Vietnam’s ancient capital with a beautiful cruise through the part of Ninh Binh province known as “Ha Long Bay on land.” A shorter drive from Hanoi than either Ha Long Bay or Mai Chau, this is a truly excellent day trip, especially with the visit to Bich Dong Pagoda at the end.

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