Part 2: Saigon, Hoi An
Penh -> Saigon
(Ho Chi Minh City)
Chancery All Suite Hotel, Saigon, 196
Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. US $35 for a very nice room with
everything, even WLAN to which however I can't connect when I check in.
The room is actually a suite with a first room with a sofa and other
furniture and a second room. Very good value for US $35, some orders of
magnitude better than the hotel in Phnom Penh which cost the same. I
booked this room through a travel agent at the airport in Saigon. Breakfast included.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with no
clouds, very windy in Phnom Penh. Due to the wind it does not get too
hot. 27°C in Saigon when I arrive in the evening.
I wake up at 8am, get ready, pack my things and shortly after 9am I get
out of the hotel. Outside yesterday's tuk-tuk driver is waiting for me
asks where I want to go. Actually I just want to secure the plane
ticket to Saigon, and on Sisowath quay yesterday I found two places
which were selling the ticket for US $95. "No problem, I know a place
where you can get the plane ticket for less, don't buy it here, they
will overcharge you..." Ok, so we jump into his tuk-tuk and he brings
to a place near the Psar Thmei market. Ticket price there is US
$92, wow what a "saving", but hey I have to pay the driver, so there is
no saving at all.
Never mind, at 9:30am everything is done, will have to return after
11am to fetch the ticket. Back in Sisowath quay I start a walk, after
declining an offer of the tuk-tuk driver to drive me around the whole
day (and where should I go? There is not much to see in Phnom Penh
anyway). Until about 11 something am I walk towards the royal
palace, stopping here and there for a photo.
Phnom Penh is sort of a smaller version of Bangkok with French
influences and French colonial architecture. Quite a pleasant city for
a day or so. There are almost no taxis, with people relying on tuk-tuks
to get around. Lots of poor and disabled people on the streets, lots of
beggars and lots of children who work. I see small girls carrying heavy
loads - bookshelves full of travel books - asking if you want to buy a
book. Must be really tiring to walk around all day with these
bookshelves, especially if you are a small kid. Not much of a
childhood, instead of going to school these kids spend their days on
Internet access is available in Internet cafes which can be found
everywhere in Phnom Penh (and in Siem Reap
too) at prices between 0.5-1 US $ per hour.
When walking on the streets in Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk and motorcycle
drivers will constantly ask you to use their services. These people
must be desperate for some cash.
By the time I arrive to the royal palace it's 11:30am and the royal
palace is closed, as I find out. It reopens at 2:30pm, funny that they
close it between 11am and 2:30pm. So I start walking in direction of
the hotel, then take a tuk-tuk to the Psar Thmei market, walk to
the travel agency where I fetch the ticket. Then I walk a bit in the
area and finally take a tuk-tuk (US $2) to the independence monument
and from there back to the Sisowath quay. There I check my emails and
the Airasia flight from Hanoi to KL on Dec. 28th. I also check if
Airasia has packages for Langkawi from Dec. 29th to Jan. 1st.
Unfortunately no hotel is available.
Then I have some lunch in a restaurant and at 2:10pm I start walking to
the Royal Palace. At 2:30pm I get in and until almost 4pm I'm there.
Actually one hour is plenty to visit the palace compound, which is sort
of a smaller version of the Grand Palace in Bangkok (here the
Khmer are mimicking a bit the Thais), but after that I have an ice
cream break. It's US $2.50 for an Almond Magnum and a Lemonsoda soft
drink, which is not exactly cheap for a country like Cambodia.
At 4pm I start walking towards the Independence monument. Outside the
royal palace there is a lot of police cars and police officers. This
must be the escort of some members of the royal family. By the way, the
uniforms of the police officers look like those of Thai police
officers. After some time the police convoy starts rolling.
I then walk towards the river where there is fun fair and then get back
to the guesthouse at 4:55pm. Unpleasant surprise, the room where my
bags are, is locked and the person with the keys is not there. Some
phone calls, waiting and finally around 5:15pm the person with the keys
shows up and opens the door. Then I ask about a taxi, they call it, but
it doesn't show up in time, so at 5:28pm I jump into a tuk-tuk to the
It takes a bit over half an hour to get to the airport. The
interior of the airport itself is nice and modern with an elegant
furnishing and layout. Some nervousness at the immigration counter as
it appears that I have lost the immigration card (have to fill in a new
one). The VN818 flight with Vietnam airlines is 10 minutes late. The
plane is an ATR72 turboprop and the hostesses (wow!) wear the
traditional Vietnamese dress, which is sexy as the top part is quite
At 8:20pm we land in Saigon. Immigration and baggage retrieval are very
fast, then at 8:50pm I'm at the counter of one of the two travel
agencies at the airport. It takes half an hour to settle the hotel
bookings and the taxi. Basically I'm in the Sol Chancery hotel for the
first night and in the Sai Gon hotel for the next nights. It might look
as a dumb solution, but never mind. The taxi to the hotel is US $7 and
the trip takes around 25 minutes.
Saigon looks like a pretty developed town, with lots of elegant and
modern shops and cool restaurants (based on what I see while driving
from the airport to the hotel). Looks like Vietnam is much more
developed than Cambodia.
(Ho Chi Minh City)
Saigon Hotel, Saigon. US $37 for a room
everything, even WLAN, but much less nice than the one in the Chancery
hotel. The room is noisy (lots of traffic noise). Breakfast included.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with no
clouds in the morning. In the afternoon overcast, but no rain.
I wake up at 8:30am, get ready, pack my things, have breakfast and
around 9:30am check out from the Chancery hotel, take a taxi and check
in the Saigon hotel. Quite a difference of standards, the Chancery All
Suite was much better.
I manage to get the WLAN connection going and check and process my
emails. Then, at 11:25am I start exploring Saigon by foot until
12:15pm. Then I have some food in a cafe and restart exploring Saigon
after 1pm. The centre of the city is nice, elegant and has most
attractions and modern buildings. But it doesn't take too long to visit
all these few attractions and in fact at 1:25pm I take a taxi to the
Giac Vien Pagoda. The taxi driver needs a lot of time to get there
(almost one hour) and even manages to bring me to the wrong pagoda, the
Giac Lam one. Never mind, I visit both. Both of these pagodas are
unimpressive, if compared to a typical Chinese temple. They are a bit
disappointing, although the Giac Vien is a bit more interesting. While
waiting on the street for a taxi I spot a mobile phone shop. I buy a
SIM card for my mobile phone and a recharge, for a total of 200000
dong. By the way, earlier in the day I have withdrawn some money for an
ATM (there are ATMs everywhere).
At 3:40pm I take a taxi to the Cholon Chinatown, which is kind of
interesting, but I would need a couple of hours and I'm tired of
walking around, so at 4:40pm I take a taxi back to the city centre, to
Me Linh square. The idea is to catch a glimpse of the river. Very tough
to cross the street in the Me Linh square. There is not really a nice
riverfront, because there is actually a harbour. I'm there until almost
6pm, then get back to the hotel. In the hotel I download the photos to
the subnotebook and check my emails.
After 8pm I briefly get out again for some dinner. Then I check if
there are tours to the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. They are
all very expensive, so I in the end decide to charter a car for one
day. The travel agency with whom I booked the hotel yesterday quotes US
$55 and a taxi driver in front of the hotel would be willing to do it
for US $50. Will decide tomorrow how to do the trip.
(Ho Chi Minh City)
Saigon Hotel, Saigon.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with almost
no clouds. Over the course of the day it gets more and more cloudy, and
in the evening it is overcast.
Day dedicated to Caodaism. The alarm clock wakes me up at 8:00am. I get
ready, briefly check the emails and have breakfast. At 9:15am I'm down
in the lobby and look for a taxi to go to Tay Ninh and Cu Chi. I find
it soon, and we settle on US $50 (it's actually a bigger car, SUV
At 9:30am we start driving to Tay Ninh, arriving at the Cao Dai temple
at 12:10pm (driver got lost on the way and had to stop a couple of
times, to ask for directions). The drive itself takes time, as you
first need 45 minutes just to get out of Saigon, then the road is
initially good and later gets quite bad. There are road works
everywhere, the whole area is going through a massive road construction
From a photographers' perspective the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh is
great. Very scenic setting with lots of colours, artistic ornaments
everywhere, believers and priests dressed in elegant and colourful
robes sitting in rows on the ground. Photography is allowed, it is easy
to place a tripod and the believers for the most time don't move, so
that you get sharp shots even with long exposure times. From an
esthetic point of view it's a beautiful setting.
At 1pm we leave the temple and drive to Cu Chi to see the tunnels. I
can't find any restaurant in Tay Ninh, so I skip lunch. It takes a lot
of time to get there as driver can't find the place and has to ask for
directions. We only arrive at 2:50pm.
After buying the ticket (70000 dong) and getting in, I'm adopted by a
guide wearing the uniform of the vietcong. Initially I'm shown a
propaganda movie about Cu Chi. It tells the story of the Cu Chi region
before the war, then came the Americans and destroyed everything, and
here is the life of two resistance fighters, a female and a male one,
who happily shoot Americans, lay out mines with which they blow up
Americans, use rocket launchers to happily blow up American tanks,
shoot even more Americans, block the American offensive etc. Kind of a
surreal Borat-like movie, they
should place it Youtube, it would be an instant success.
The reality hits me when I crawl through the tunnels and get a direct
feeling how terrible life must have been during the war. At almost 4pm
the tour is finally finished and I manage to get lost on the way out.
I backtrack, ask for directions and finally at 4:30pm I'm back in the
It then takes quite some time to get back to the hotel, as we first
drive along small roads, some of them unpaved, then later in Saigon are
stuck in the traffic. We only reach the hotel at 6:30pm. In the room I
check the emails again, then have dinner.
Tomorrow I'll take the 5:30pm flight to Danang. I'll skip an extra
night in Saigon, as there is not that much to see and my time is short
anyway. I sleep as usual at almost 1am.
(Ho Chi Minh City) -> Hoi An
Thao Nguyen Hotel (aka Grassland
hotel), Hoi An. www.grasslandhotel.com.vn. US $16 for a room with fan,
A/C, TV, fridge, own bath with hot shower, some furniture. There is
even a DSL line in the room, unfortunately after 8:40pm there is no
more Internet access. Less stylish than the hotels in Saigon. You can
rent bicycles for free and they organise tours (there is a travel
agency in the hotel). You have to leave the passport in the reception.
Sort of "big family" feeling.
Weather: same pattern as yesterday:
in Saigon sunny, blue sky with almost
no clouds in the morning, overcast later in the afternoon. Only
21°C in Danang and Hoi An in the evening.
I get up at 9am, thereby missing the breakfast. I check my emails and
browse the web. Lots of replies to my threads in the Lonely Planet
Thorntree forum. People blaming me for daring to criticise Saigon, go
figure. Then I go down to the travel agency in the lobby and buy a
ticket to Da Nang. I choose the 5:30pm
flight with Vietnam Airlines for 830000 dong. This should be around US
$48, but the lady calculates US $52.
After finishing to pack my bags I ckeck out and leave the bags in the
hotel. At 11 something am I get out of the hotel and have something,
a cafe (excellent pancake with pineapple and cream, but overpriced at
US $4 - everything seems to be overpriced in Saigon), then in a KFC.
The meat in the Zinger burger is overfried and dry.
Then I walk to the shopping complex opposite the
Rex hotel. This shopping complex is relatively
small, if compared to other malls in south east Asia, but there is a
supermarket, where I find the things I need. Lots of Xmas decorations
also here by the way.
Around 12:40pm I start walking towards the river, with the idea to have
a look at the old market nearby. Once at the river I see that there is
a piece of promenade along the riverfront, but it's not much of a
promenade, because along the river there is the harbour. Not a very
scenic place to hang around. Nothing I've seen so far in Saigon is
scenic. It appears to be a chaotic city with a very small elegant
centre, but not tourist oriented at all. There is for instance no
riverfront with cafes and restaurants and nice views, and there are no
major attractions, no tourist highlights. Saigon is just a not so well
planned big city.
On the promenade a guy approaches me and offers a boat tour for one
hour for 300000 dong. Some discussion and we settle on 200000 dong (I
probably could have gone lower, but never mind). Leaving at 12:55pm we
pass through the canals on the opposite (east) side of the Saigon
river. It's interesting to see that the eastern side of the river is
completely undeveloped. There are no buildings, no roads only water
channels, swamp, vegetation and the occasional hut or two.
Shortly before 2pm I'm back and then take a taxi to the Archbishop's
residence. It takes about 20 minutes to get there and the building is
sort of cute but not so special. Then I slowly walk towards the hotel,
initially trying to find the Xa Loi pagoda which should be nearby, but
in the end I can't find. Then I walk back to the hotel, passing by a
park to the southwest of the reunification hall.
Arround 3:20pm I have some food (a sandwich and a fresh orange juice)
in the French restaurant opposite the Opera. The juice is full of ice
cubes, so effectively I only get half a glass of it. The total bill is
104000 dong (they quoted prices without the 15% tax), which is steep
considering what I'm getting. They even keep asking if I want another
juice or a tea or coffee. Not at these prices...
At 3:45pm I head back to the hotel and fetch my bags, leaving at 3:55pm
to the airport. The drive takes longer than expected, as there is a lot
of traffic jam. We only arrive at 4:35pm, then it's 20 minutes in the
queue and finally, shortly before 5pm, I manage to check in.
The Vietnam Airlines plane (an Airbus A321) to Danang leaves with a
short delay and is almost full. We land in Danang at 6:45pm. Then
everything goes quite fast and by 7:30pm I'm in a taxi on my way to Hoi
An. By the way, the temperature is only 21°C in the evening here
and it's quite cold, if you only wear shorts and a T-shirt.
The taxi trip costs 265000 dong (taxi is metered) for the approx. 30
km. When I arrive I manage to download my emails, but soon after that
the Internet connection collapses and not just in the hotel, but also
in other places in Hoi An, as I find out.
22.12: Hoi An
Thao Nguyen Hotel (aka Grassland
hotel), Hoi An. Very friendly staff, let me have breakfast even at 11am
and don't charge for the banana pancake. Apparently they are hoping
that I will stay longer. They also have a taylor and ask if I want to
buy a made-to-measure suit...
Weather: sunny with some clouds in
the morning, it gets overcast in the afternoon. Quite fresh, no A/C is
necessary and I also freeze a bit with my shorts - would you believe
it? Very weird climate, just 600 km from tropical Saigon. Quite strong
I get up after 9am, check my emails, surf the web and finally at 11am
go down. Chit-chat with the staff and they say I can still have
breakfast, even if it's 11am. Great, so I have a breakfast and then
take a bicycle into town, arriving at 12:45pm (somehow I managed to
spend the entire morning in the hotel).
My sightseeing of Hoi An lasts until 5:30pm with a break at
3pm for some food. Hoi An is sort of a cute touristy town, compact city
centre with old buildings, many artistic ones with decorations, lots of
souvenir and handicraft shops everywhere, many restaurants and cafes,
good backpacker infrastructure etc. You might call it a backpacker
mecca. The only thing is that it is very small, so in a few hours you
have visited most places. If you like, you can hang around in this
place doing nothing for a few days, just hopping from a
cafe/pub/restaurant to the next.
At 5:30pm I head back to the hotel and have dinner there. At 8:30pm I
get back into town. The cafes and restaurants are more or less filled
with tourists. There is one place with music, full of young western
tourists. Interestingly the riverfront gets flooded by the tidal waters.
Around 10pm I get back to the hotel. Tomorrow I'm planning to go to My
Son by private car and from there drive to Hue. I've been quoted US $60
by a travel agent.
23.12: Hoi An
-> My Son
Binh Duong II Hotel, 8 Ngo Gia Tu
Street, Hue. US $16 for a big room with a high roof,
TV/fridge/phone, A/C, fan, some basic furniture, attached bathroom with
shower (hot water). No Internet line in the room, although when I
checked in the
staff promised to place an Ethernet cable in the room. Breakfast
included. Can't complain about the room (after all it is quiet at
night), but I was hoping for something nicer (this hotel has been
recommended by the hotel in Hoi An). Location: about 10 minutes walk
from the Perfume river.
Weather: overcast and it rains a bit.
I get up at 8 something am, look out of the window and lose all
enthusiasm for this day. It is overcast and raining outside - sigh. I
get back to the bed, then wake up for real. I connect to the Internet
and check my emails. Then I get ready and at 10am I'm down in the lobby
and have breakfast. After that some discussion with the hotel staff ...
what are you going to do today ... going to Hue but first to My Son ...
we can organise a driver + car for you ... how much ... US $69 ... oh
I got an offer for US $60 ... ok ok ok let's agree on US $60.
I get back to the room and shortly after 11am I'm back down in the
lobby and check out. I don't have enough cash so I try to pay with the
credit card. For some reason the VISA card does not work, so I suggest
that the driver brings me to an ATM where I can withdraw some cash and
pay cash for the room and the car. Ok, so we drive to the city, and at
the third attempt I find a bank which accepts my Maestro/Cirrus ATM
card. We drive back to the hotel where I pay for the room.
By the time we finally start driving towards My Son it's already
11:45am. Since the car smells strongly after petrol, we drive to some
place in Hoi An, where we change cars. Then the trip to My Son starts.
At 12:40pm we are in My Son. The entrance ticket costs 60000 dong. The
weather is improving, with some sunshine poking through the clouds. It
is also getting warmer. I'm at the site until 2pm. The site is
interesting, because the temples are based on Indian influences,
despite being so far away and clearly in the Chinese cultural sphere of
influence. The only problem is that not many structures are left, and
the temples which still stand don't have much in terms of carvings and
At 2pm I'm back at the entrance and I have some quick food (dried
noodles soup). Then at 2:15pm we leave for Hue, making a couple of
stops along the way. The scenery between Danang and Hue is indeed
interesting and could be beautiful if only the sun was shining and the
sky was blue. The beach in Lang Co is not impressive. It is interesting
to see how close to the sea there are wet rice fields (they are almost
adjacent to the sea).
At 5:50pm we arrive to the hotel. After some discussion about the room
I check in. In the evening I walk a bit around Hue. It seems to be a
touristy place, with good tourist infrastructure (lots of travel
agencies, hotels, restaurants catering to international travellers).
Hopefully tomorrow the weather will be better than today.