A Travellerspoint blog

Danang, Vietnam

My kye Beach

We arrived in Danang by train, which would have been a beautiful ride along the mountainous coastline, were it not for the rain. It was also raining here as well, and fairly dismal in this seaside resort area that is now being massively built up. However, we received a warm welcome from Huan and his family at the rather spartan Eena Hotel. They have gone out of their way to take care of us and make us feel welcome. We also quickly made the acquaintance of two young Japanese, around 20, who are spending a month here. Huan's wife is Japanese, and the place has a number of Japanese touches, including miso soup and an optional Japanese breakfast. Also staying here, is a very bright and articulate young Aussie named Darian, after the Persian emperor of the same name. Darian says he was given this name three weeks after his birth in a rainforest, from his rather eccentric mother, who had a dream that this is what is name should be.

To most Americans of a certain age, (mine to be exact) Danang conjures up images of a huge airbase, full of GI's arriving and departing, and used as a major staging area for the war. There is still a large airport here, now used for commercial flights, and thanks to a relatively uncorrupt mayor, the city is a thriving and growing business center.

The next day brought an improvement in the weather. Han, a friend of Huyen, came to our hotel, and so once again, we had our own private tour guide.


At first she told us that she didn't think that her English was good enough for such important personages as ourselves, despite that Huyen told her that we were just ordinary people. We tried to reassure her that her English was more than sufficient, and I think she gained confidence as she spent time with us.

The tour began with a taxi ride to a temple at the foot of Monkey Mountain. Recently built, there was an expansive view of the sea from the temple courtyard, as well as an enormous statue of Guan Yin or Guan Am, as they call her here. She looked like the statue of liberty in size and girth.


Shoreline of Danang from the temple

From there it was off to the Cham Museum. Cham culture is one of the oldest in Vietnam dating to 400 or 500 AD. There are still some Cham people, but most have been assimilated into Vietnamese culture.

You can see both Chinese and Indian influences on the Cham

We ate a lunch of various types of local noodle dishes, the names of which elude me, let alone the pronunciation. While we try and say a few words in Vietnamese, with its six tones, it is more or less a continual tongue twister. We then went to a local market,


followed by a visit to the Big C, (not unlike Big K) but more upscale, with a large US style supermarket. We returned to Eena in the late PM, exhausted but happy. Huan, the hotel owner, prepared a dinner of fresh tuna, veggies, rice, and miso soup.

Han had classes the next day, and with perfect weather, we spent most of it sitting on chaise lounges on the beach. It's interesting to note that we, and the few other white foreigners, were virtually the only people on the beach during mid day. The Vietnamese only come at the end of the day, as the sun is going down. It seems the white people want to get darker, and the Vietnamese, just like the Chinese, want to get lighter.

Beach with Monkey Mountain and faint Guan Am in distance

In the evening we sat around drinking Mojitos, made with New Zealand vodka that Darian had brought in KL, Malaysia. Tomo and his Japanese friend were there, along with Han, his wife, and their adorable daughter. We listened to old Rolling Stones takes on my phone, which they all seemed to know quite well. I also brought out my Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other Chicago blues. They, or at least Darian, a music school graduate, knew this stuff quite well. We danced, we talked, we drank. It was quite a night, and a good time was had by all.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beaches people postcards Comments (6)


When we arrived in Hue it was pouring, and our taxi driver tried to cheat us. Everyone, especially taxi drivers it seems, can't be nice. Hue, much smaller than Hanoi is more manageable. While there are motorbikes, and you still have to be careful crossing the street, it is more relaxed and far less polluted.

Today it is still raining, but lightly, and so we were able to walk around the Citadel and the old imperial city. Much of it was destroyed by very heavy American bombing. So pointless. It is hard to understand how it would be possible to bomb such a beautiful and historic place, but I guess that has never stopped others in the past. They are now in the process of reconstructing it, but there is still a lot to see. Old brick walls, dragon and phoenix paintings on the walls, dramatic archways etc. Despite the chilly and clammy weather we spent a few hours wandering around.

Entrance to the Imperial City

Arch Details in the Imperial City



The Vietnamese flag, once again, flies over the highest point in the Citadel. As Huyen says, it is very beautiful, but also very sad because of all of the destruction. The Vietnamese must be a resilient people, after all they have been through. One thousand years of Chinese domination, then approximately 100 years of French rule followed by a war of independence, and then the partitioning of north and south, followed by 10 years or more of war with the Americans. And yet here they are, proud of their ancient culture.


On the following day, it was still overcast for our boat ride on the Perfume River, but the rain held off. The attraction here, are the late 19th century tombs of the emperors, which line the banks of the river, each trying to out due the others in pomp and circumstance. Unfortunately, the whole trip has become quite commercial, and each of the tombs has a separate admission charge. Nonetheless, it is worth doing.

Looking out toward Perfume River from tomb

Tomb ceiling detail

Stone warriors in tomb courtyard

Yours truely

A splash of color along the river

Posted by jonshapiro 12:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (2)

Ninh Binh

After another night in Hanoi, we hired a car to take us to Ninh Binh, roughly three hours away. We wanted to spend more time with Huyen, and to thank her for all she had done for us. She met us in the morning, along with her cousin Huang, as well as three other university friends who we were not expecting. No matter, we all managed to squeeze in. They are such a great group of kids, seemingly much more mature than college students in the US. They all seemed excited to spend time with us, despite the age difference, and generally their English is quite good. Huang, the oldest at age 29, took charge of the whole day, and made all of the arrangements.

The small town of Tam Coc is famous for its goat restaurants, and we had an enormous lunch with all the local specialities. I won't attempt to describe them in detail, but suffice it to say we had goat and veggie spring rolls, goat with peanuts, goat with green onions and potatoes, etc. You get the idea. All washed down with the local brew. It was not for the vegetarian faint of heart, but it was delicious. Huyen and her friends insisted on paying. We somewhat guiltily noticed all the goats roaming around after the meal, minus one that is.


The primary reason we were here, however, was not to stuff ourselves full of goat meat. It was for a two hour boat ride through a series of limestone caves and karst mountains on the Ngo Dong River.




On our sampan, were gently rowed by a middle aged woman, who alternated between rowing with her feet and hands.


We needed two boats because there were so many of us.


As is obvious from the pictures, the scenery was outstanding, the ride, relaxing.


At one point Huyen, who came with us, tried her hand at rowing. It seems she could use a little more practice.


Nanette bought a few embroidered pictures made by our rower, who then brought us to her house to meet her 92 year old mother, who had also made one or two of the pictures. After the boat trip we drove over to Bich Dong, an old 15th century pagoda.


It is located in a beautiful setting, white storks flying in a nearby field.




Huang asked if we wanted to go to see more of the storks and of course we said yes. She hired a local man to accompany us in our jeep. The ride was on a narrow road that was still in the process of being built. We soon found out why. After 20 minutes or so, we came to a road block. Huang got out to negotiate. As it turns out, not far up the dirt track was a large resort, smack in the middle of the jungle. Although not yet open, they demanded the equivalent of about $8 for each of us, just to drive further up on the property to view the storks. Huang was furious. Something that had just been a natural event, was being turned into a tourist rip-off, open only to the rich. So typical, she said, about what is happening all over her country. We decided that it wasn't worth it and turned around. On the way back, she argued with the local guide, who must have known that this was going to happen and didn't say anything.


On arriving in Hanoi, we made a stop for Pho Bo, (beef and noodle soup) in their favorite Pho shop, which are ubiquitous here. This one they said, was special. And it was the best.

The next day, Huyen remembered it was Nanette's birthday, and brought over a cake to Thuy's house. We celebrated with her three children and a neighbor, who all loved it, as did we. It was a great send-off before we left for the airport for Hue. We felt very grateful for Thuy's hospitality, and for introducing us to Huyen, her cousin and her friends. Huyen reminds us very much of Sunny, our favorite Chinese student, who we recently visited. She is a delightful, engaging, and bright young woman.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people boats Comments (1)

Halong Bay

We went out to Halong Bay for two days and a night, after booking with a small travel agency in old town, Hanoi. I would guess they all sell the same tours on various boats with slightly different prices. Unfortunately, we didn't really get as far as Bai Tu Long Bay, as they said we would. This bay is much less crowded than Halong, which is full of tourist boats out to see the karst mountains jutting straight out of the water. As a result of all the traffic, it is far from pristine. We saw a considerable amount of floating garbage, and I'm sure that many boats just dump their waste in the water. Despite that, and the less then ideal weather, it was still quite beautiful. The fog added atmosphere to the limestone crags looming in the azure and tranquil sea.


We made the typical stops to a few of the islands, including one with a sizable cave, another with a small beach, and one with a tower on top of a mountain with a commanding view of the bay.



I couldn't resist

While walking around, and even on board, various passing boats were eager to sell us food and souvenirs. People actually live out on the bay, and there is even a floating school.


On our small junk, we had a fun, international group of people ranging from a Mexican psychology professor to a young couple from Corsica, a Finnish couple, and a Quebecois from the city of the same name. William, in his mid 30's, was enough to change my mind about professional soldiers. They are not all mindless killers. He had been to Afghanistan a number of times, and was going back there for another six weeks to finish his tour of duty. He clearly cares a great deal about the Afghani's, and is there because he thinks that he can do some good for the country. He is hopeful that when he and the Americans leave, the people will be better off, and there will be peace. We shall see. In any event, he was a delight to talk to, and had a great sense of humor to boot. We drank snake wine together, which is as awful as it sounds, and we went garbage fishing in the bay at night. What is that, you might ask? Well, the crew gave us fishing rods to catch fish, but all we managed to do was to snag pieces of floating debris. Others, including William also sang Karaoke. I abstained, given my inability to carry a tune.

Our group, inside the cave. William in shorts/white shirt, center left

It was a great experience spending the night on the boat, with occasional views of the moon behind the clouds and mountains. The food was also exceptional, and though this was far from a luxurious boat, they treated us well.

Not ours, but it was similar


The bus ride back to Hanoi was long, and then our cab driver in Hanoi got lost in the insane rush hour traffic. Luckily we were able to call Thuy, our hostess, and she was able to speak to and direct him. At a certain point, we had to get out of the taxi because we couldn't move. We had to walk several blocks on a main street, which was jammed with motorbikes, cars, regular bikes and people, so much so, that it was difficult to maneuver around without getting hit by someone. It was a relief to find our way through the maze of side alleys to Chez Linhlinh.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people boats tourist_sites Comments (3)


We have spent four busy, fascinating, days in Hanoi sightseeing and getting to know several local people. This vibrant but polluted city, is a mix of stately, yellow, French colonial houses in various states of repair, a few wide boulevards, and many neighborhoods of alleys, shop houses, crowded low rise tenements, and smaller houses in close proximity.

Old town street scene, an area popular with tourists

Luckily, we arranged for transport from the airport to our comfortable home stay, located on a tiny alley in a non-touristy area. We would never have found it by ourselves, and it was always an adventure finding our way to other parts of the city and back again. Our host at Chez LinhLinh, Thuy, has been an absolute doll, giving us all kinds of info, lending us her phone in case we got lost, something we made us of, and even finding us a free local guide, a university student.

During our first day we explored the city on our own. Our home stay is somewhat outside the center, and there are few westerners here. Instead the maze of tiny alleys are chock full of various food vendors selling fresh veggies, and Pho. They seem to come and go, depending on the time of day. Some are open for breakfast, others lunch and dinner. The table and stools are tiny, much like the tea stalls in Burma. They are not made for long legged Americans, but the food is usually fresh and cheap.

After struggling to find our way out of the maze, we walked a long time, passing embassy row, and then arriving at Ho's mausoleum, which was closed. We did manage to see his house and walk around the extensive grounds.

Ho's Mausoleum

Houses on Ho's compound

Uncle Ho is still very much of a revered figure here, and his residence and mausoleum are hallowed ground. There were many Vietnamese as well as foreigners. Finding our way back was even more difficult. At one point we stopped at a small hair salon and showed them our card from Thuy, in Vietnamese and English. Each patron pointed a different way. One person seemed more sure of herself, and luckily, she turned out to be right. We were only two small streets away, but if we headed in the wrong direction, I might not be writing this now. The traffic is without exaggeration, insane. Totally over the top, especially at rush hour when there is not enough room to move, even on the narrow sidewalks. Motorbikes buzz like angry bees, and head in every direction at once. There is an occasional light, but you can't count on anyone stopping. Crossing the street is very much a game of chicken. It took us a couple of days to get the hang of it. Don't look at anyone, try and cross with others, and above all act fearless. Hanoi may be a perfect illustration of Shapiro's traffic rule number one. The more repressive the government, the more people act out (with tacit permission) on the road.

Later that evening , auspiciously on the last night of Tet, Thuy took us to the local Buddhist temple to make an offering to her ancestors. She then gave us some chocolate coins, not unlike Hannukah Gelt, a good luck New Year's present.

Nanette, Thuy and her three lovely children

We walked from there to her nearby parents house, where they plied us with all kinds of local food, as well as beer and rice wine. Her father, who spoke almost no English, kept refilling my glass, despite my protests. I think however, like most asians, he couldn't hold his liquor as well as I, a westerner, could. Thuy acted acted as translator, and her three girls, age 16 months, 6 and 8 provided plenty of entertainment.

The next day, Thuy introduced us to our very own tour guide. Huyen, a sweet 20 year old English student, took us to all to kinds of local places that we would never have found on our own. We started out in one of the nearby alleys with banh cuon, a kind of dumpling with mushrooms served in a pork broth. Delicate and delicious.


We then walked into the main part of town stopping to look at different pagodas, before going into another tiny alley to get to a famous student coffee shop, where they served egg coffee. No foreigners present.

Drinking egg coffee and eating sunflower seeds

Vietnamese students drinking coffee in outdoor coffee house in old town

From there it was on to Hoan Kiem lake in the center of town, with bridge and pagoda connected to a small island.


Grandfather and granddaughter sitting near the bridge

The lake is famous for a huge turtle which is only seen intermittently. We saw the carcass of a preserved one which had washed on shore several years ago. Apparently the lake used to have many more turtles, but now there is only one. Nearby, a rather phallic looking edifice, where, we were told, one can write messages in the sky to one's departed relatives.

From there we stopped in the Vietnamese version of a drive in ice cream place, a sort of A&W, without the burgers and the root beer. It was packed with young people and motorbikes. We ordered coconut ice cream pops, kem sua dua. Love to say that word. We each had more than one in fact. Hard not to at around 25 cents each.


While Nanette popped into an art gallery across the street, I took pictures of the ice cream police, as I call them. They seemed intent on giving tickets to all who parked their bikes on the sidewalk. Well, not all. Those who could cough up an immediate bribe were spared, at least that is how it appeared. Considering that I never saw anyone receive a traffic ticket for going through a red light, it seemed like a scam.

Ice cream police truck

Street scene outside of ice cream store and gallery

In the gallery, Nanette found an abstract artist whose work she really liked, and made arrangements to visit her studio the next day. We then took the scenic, aka long way back, past West Lake. We stopped to take pictures of Huyen in front of her imposing French colonial high school, and talked with her about school and her family.


Like many of our former Chinese students, she loved the opportunity to practice her English and seemed to really appreciate that we had come to visit her country. She was outgoing and open about her life, and in many ways seemed more mature than her age cohort in the states. By the time we got back our feet were killing us, but so what. We did manage to make our way to a nearby Pho place. Exhausted, we made it an early night, whereas Huyan was off to her belly dancing class. The next day she had classes at university, but she invited us to have dinner with her family in the evening.

In the morning, after a bit of confusion we were picked up by Nguyen Tam, the agent of the artist, who took us to see her studio. Ngo Hai Yen's was am attractive, vivacious woman in her 40's. She and Nanette seem to hit it off at once. Her abstract lacquer paintings were an intense mixture of colors, with bits of gold and silver leaf added to increase the layering effect. When Nanette saw she had some smaller works, she couldn't resist buying one. We were then invited to her house to see her canvas paintings, which we were more than happy to do. Nguyen, also her best friend, and an interesting woman in her own right, acted as translator. Before long the artist was cooking up a storm and invited us to stay for lunch. Some how we got started discussing classical and latin music. It wasn't long before I took out my phone to play Congo to Cuba while we ate lunch. As we shared more about our lives, they both told us they didn't have much in common with their husbands, something Thuy had also made a point of telling us. They are engineers by training, and as is often the case, they are not very communicative. Thuy's husband on the other hand, is a travel agent. The women were very revealing about their personal lives, perhaps because they might not see us again?

After lunch Ngo, the artist, asked if wanted to go dancing in a club. In the afternoon we queried? They nodded, and although her friend didn't know how to dance at all, it wasn't long before we piled into a cab and went off to the club. It seems as though ballroom dancing is a popular pastime in Hanoi, though the place was relatively empty at this time of day. I pranced around in my usual, half assed, 60's free form manner, but Ngo was a fabulous dancer. There were a number of young men who were eager to be her partner. Professionals? Gay? Perhaps, but they could really move to those latin beats. Nguyen was happy to sit on the side, except when I took her up for a whirl. I'm sure we looked ridiculous. I also managed to dance with a couple of the older ladies who attempted, with little success, to show me how to move properly to the music. Quite an experience. It was nice to see a range of ages, all dancing with one another.

Ngo with one of the professional dancers

We returned in late afternoon, just in time to shower and go next door to Huyen's house. She had invited her older cousin and a friend, both of whom spoke excellent English. While they prepared a huge meal of snails, clams, fresh spring rolls, etc., I chatted with her very young looking father, (mid 50's) who runs an IT company with 70 employees. Considering this, they live in a very modest house and obviously don't have much money. Hong was educated in Hungary during its communist days. He speaks Hungarian, and also spent a year in Russia, so naturally he speaks Russian. He also speak a bit of Mandarin as well as English. His parents, now dead, moved to Hanoi from Hue in between the French and American wars. The American War, is of course, what we call the Vietnam War. During two periods of heavy American bombing, Hong was sent with several hundred other children, to live deep in the jungle. There was rarely enough to eat, and they often had to catch fish and insects by themselves. His other three brothers were sent to different sites, apparently because there was less chance they would all be bombed at the same time. In between bombing episodes, he returned home to his family.

His father was fairly high up in the North Vietnamese army, but apparently didn't know how to use a gun. Whether this meant he really was never taught, or if he just couldn't bring himself to use it, is not clear. Hong told me about a time his father was in the jungle with another officer. It was hot so the other man slept at the entrance to the cave. In the night there was a bombing raid, and the other man was killed while his father was okay because he was sleeping deeper inside. Just lucky, he said. He also told me another story about how an American bomber was shot down and landed totally intact. Both the Russians and the Chinese wanted to get their hands on it. This made it very difficult for Vietnam. Eventually, they gave it to the Russians in exchange for 300 bombers, but the Chinese were very angry. At the end of the war, when the Vietnamese fought Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Chinese were also angry, and started to bomb the border areas in the north of Vietnam. At this time Hong was in the army, and like his father, did not know how to shoot.

He, his family, and other many others in North Vietnam seem to harbor little resentment of the Americans as well as the French. It is largely a country of young people though, and so they have little direct experience with the wars. The one group that seems to engender some anger is the Chinese, perhaps because they occupied the country for more than 1000 years. So much for the domino theory.

I let Hong know that I was opposed to the war, and although it was hard to completely gauge his feelings, based on his hospitality it was obvious that he could distinguish between the US government and individual people. What an incredible waste of human life and so much suffering. Ten million Vietnamese died he told me. After this somewhat heavy discussion, (despite the beer we shared), dinner was served to the delight of all. It was quite a feast, and a good time was had by all. We took many pictures of one another.

The gang's all here: Huyen with family members and friend

Hong and his wife with Nanette and Jon

Later, Hong showed me an old one of his father that he was obviously very proud of. Hard to imagine that 50 years ago there was so much killing, and now it is like it never happened.


The following day we were on our own again, but it was much less hectic. The water puppet show, which tells the story of the founding of Vietnam, was the highlight. Tomorrow we go off for two days to Halong Bay on a junk.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food cities_postcards Comments (4)

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