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Getting around

Part 2: Saigon, Hoi An

18.12: Phnom Penh -> Saigon
19.12: Saigon
20.12: Saigon
21.12: Saigon -> Hoi An
22.12: Hoi An
23.12: Hoi An -> My Son -> Hue
24.12: Hue -> Hanoi
25.12: Hanoi
26.12: Hanoi -> Halong bay -> Hanoi
27.12: Hanoi
28.12: Hanoi -> Kuala Lumpur

18.12: Phnom 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 and 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 me 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 the streets.

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 book 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 airport.

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 tight.

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.

19.12: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Saigon Hotel, Saigon. US $37 for a room with 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.

20.12: Saigon (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 type).

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 phase.

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 car.

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.

21.12: Saigon (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, first in 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 wind.

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 -> Hue
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. Quite fresh.

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 ... aha we can organise a driver + car for you ... how much ... US $69 ... oh no thanks 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 decorations.

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.

Copyright 2007 Alfred Molon