Vietnam 2004

I took a three-week vacation in March 2004 to Vietnam. I went with my friend Ha, who is from Vietnam. It was her first time back in Vietnam since she first came to Canada 11 years ago. Much has changed.

I kept a diary while I was there, which I will include here. And there’s a Vietnam Album in my photo-gallery.

Vietnam Trip Diary

Day 1: Tuesday March 9

Cindy drove me to the airport. It was snowy and slow, but got to the airport with time to spare. Flight uneventful so far. Not in Vancouver yet.

Over southern tip of Japan now. Guess who’s on the flight with me: Nga! Some urgent need to go to VN came up, so here she is. She’s going to Saigon, staying until the 24th. Maybe we can hook up. New H-K airport is huge and nice. Just boarded plane for Hanoi. VN Air flight-attendants remind me of Singapore Airlines, lovely “ao dai”-style uniforms. Lots of Westerners on this flight.

Got through customs in Hanoi without hassle. Padded my passport with a $20, which strangely disappeared. Ha told me to, but later said it was just to get me thinking like a VNese. Ha and Quyen were late arriving at the airport, car trouble. We had a bite while waiting for a new car to come get us. Long drive to Hai Phong. A serious taste of Vietnam: it’s insane driving. Nobody ever, ever stops for anything. Four-way intersections with heavy traffic, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, trucks, pedestrians, they all just blast right on through. It’s amazing.

The highway is lined by houses and businesses the whole way from airport to Hanoi to Hai Phong. They all look old and dilapidated, but Ha says many of them are new since she left 10 years ago. Apparently the weather here is hell on buildings. Also, the property is very, very valuable now, so these people aren’t poor.

Arrived at Ha’s father’s house in Hai Phong. Nothing special from the outside, just a metal-barred door at the foot of an alley. Inside, it’s like a hotel. Marble floors and staircase, and amazing handmade furniture. There are five floors, with a bedroom suite on every floor above the first. All marble floors again, and wonderful furniture. The top floor bedroom actually houses the altar.

The furniture sets apparently cost only $2000. Such furniture is probably not available in Canada at any price.

Met Ha’s father (“chào bác”). Gave icewine to him.

Had dinner with Ha’s father, brother, sister-in-law, Quyen, and the hired help. Roasted young pig, crispy fried fish, watercress, spicy pickled bamboo (sort-of like kimchi).

Ha’s brother speaks very good English. Quyen speaks so softly, I can’t tell if her English is good or not, I can barely hear her.

Day 2: Wednesday March 10

Didn’t sleep more than an hour last night. Trucks occasionally lay into 20 second horn blasts for no apparent reason. Cats fight. Roosters call in the morning. Stayed in bed until 8 I guess.

Took a taxi to a small restaurant with Ha. Met Ha’s oldest brother and his wife there. Neither of them speak English. Had a small bowl of beef stew and some pho for breakfast. We were in a small but normal-looking restaurant.

Across the street there’s a small restaurant that’s basically just a portable table and chairs and cooking equipment, set up on the street.

Day 3: Thursday March 11

Never did get that damn mosquito. Vietnamese mosquitos are bloody smart!

Today we’re going to go to Ha Long Bay.

Large group assembled for the trip, including two cousins, and their spouses, one little boy, Ha, Quyen and myself. We hired a minibus to take us all. Some amazing landscapes along the way, that reminded me of the pictures of Tam Coc that I got from Tuyet.

Quyen and I practised with one of my Anh-Viet phrasebooks for a while. She didn’t get car-sick this time.

Along the way, we passed a place where Ho Chi Minh once stopped, to relieve himself on a tree. Now it’s fenced off like some kind of holy shrine. The Communist party makes a point of deifying Uncle Ho whenever they can. The people themselves seem to not care that much. I suggested that I might need to make a stop myself, everyone got a good laugh (after Ha translated).

In Ha Long City (which seems very small to me), we (actually, they, I just stood around trying to look casual) negotiated for a small boat to take us all on a six-hour tour, including a meal.

Deal made, we set out. The boat was a somewhat rickety and modest diesel affair, a wooden cabin with windows all around. Long bench seats and tables.

Along the way, we saw many small fishing boats. Tiny little boats, sometimes with a whole family living onboard. A hard life, but the life they have been living for thousands of years.

Ha Long Bay is full of hundreds of limestone islands, small, but rising quite high out of the water. Many of them are practically hollow, with large caverns inside. Apparently to date, some thirty of these caverns have been discovered and set up for tourism with lights and stairs. They believe there as many as a 100 caverns in Ha Long. I hope they leave some of them in their natural state, allowing only experienced and respectful spelunkers.

Our first stop was a cave that was only discovered in 1993, by someone looking for firewood. Very beautiful place. The natural colour is whitish, with lots of stalactites (many of which get stolen). They use coloured lights in many places, I guess to keep it interesting, or to emphasize interesting formations.

I took a lot of video, and also many stills with the camcorder. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand how the camcorder still function works, and didn’t actually take many of the pictures I thought I did.

From there, back onto the boat to head to another island and another cave. This one much older. Also very beautiful, very reverberant in places. This was the one where a famous old general hid thousands of bamboo poles before a battle with the Chinese. They lined the bay with these poles, so that they were entirely submerged at high tide. The Chinese sailed into the trap. As the tide went out, their boats were trapped atop the poles, and shot with flaming arrows.

One cave had a very interesting rock formation jutting out from the side of a column, pointing somewhat upward. Redish illumination completed the image nicely. A tour guide winkingly described it as a “finger”.

Back on the boat, we had dinner. Crab and shrimp for the others, steamed fish and beef stir-fry for me. I also ate a bit of crab and a few shrimp. They actually aren’t all that bad. I still have a strong psychological block against them, but they do taste pretty good.

Back at Ha Long City, there some hassle with needing to exchange money, and some dispute about the bill being miscalculated. It was all resolved soon, anyway. I still haven’t paid for anything since I got to VN. If I go back to the airport exchange desk with all the dong I originally received, it will be very silly.

On the drive back, I had jet-lag setting in again, around 7pm I guess. But I stayed awake, way to bumpy to sleep in the car.

A while after we got back, we went out for some late supper. Ha, Quyen and I went to a small place and had “bun cha”. Grilled pork, with noodles and greens, that you dip in your own bowl of fish sauce. Quyen sister joined us after a while, but didn’t eat. I made a fool of myself, thinking I hadn’t met her already. So hard to keep all these names and faces straight.

Came home, and went to sleep about 10pm.

Day 4: Friday March 12

Woke up at 5am, with first light. I actually got a relatively good night’s sleep.

Writing this, Ha came in and we talked over coming plans. Tonight or tomorrow, we will leave for Ha Noi. Ha will stay with her cousins, I will stay at a mini-hotel just down the street.

Apparently Quyen wants to come with us. I want her to come with us. The only obstacle is that she’ll miss school. But she wants to drop that course anyway.

Spent much of the day with Ha’s brother-in-law Me today. We went (with another fellow who studies linguistics, writes poetry and music and sings) to a Chinese place for won-ton soup. Walked back, and the poet took his leave. Me and I (that’s weird to write) went to another shop for coffee. They gave me a very large cup of strong black VNese coffee (I wanted it with condensed milk, but oh well).

Came back to the house, got on his motorbike, and went on a tour of the city, through various open markets. Came home when it started raining lightly. Went out again, had some lunch of basic everyday VNese food (pork and mushroom soup, fried tofu, spinachy stuff). Sitting in the restaurant, a constant stream of people will come by and try to sell you things like books, belts, wallets, lighters, etc. Me never let me pay for anything. Three days in VN, and I still haven’t spent a single dong.

More motorbike touring, then home. Me had to go do some business, left me at home. That was cool, I could use some time to relax and chill out. I worked on my web-site in my room, finished pages on the mash-tun and keg conversion.

Somewhat later Ha came by to tell me that a large group would be going out for dinner in the evening. This was my opportunity to actually pay for something. The whole fleet of us went to the restaurant on motorbikes. Quyen couldn’t be found.

The meal consisted of fish soup (good, but I couldn’t eat the fish part very effectively), three different salads, served at various times: banana flowers (not good), banana root (not good), and one other I couldn’t identify (not very good either). Shrimp on bamboo skewers, baked inside a pile of rock salt, interesting presentation, but still shrimp, and not peeled either. I ate about five of them. Fresh-water eel, tasted alright but it was hard to eat with the spine still in there. Little rolls of beef with lemongrass, with something inside and tied up with a bit of grass, very good. Fried rice served last (to fill in the corners, I guess), quite good. Watermelon for dessert. Myself and two other guys drank about half a 500ml bottle of farmer’s rice whisky, distilled to around 37%. Quite strong-tasting, I usually cut mine with some water.

I took the opportunity (Ha’s suggestion) to thank everyone for welcoming me, and to drink to Ha’s father’s health. I also finally got to pay for something. The bill was 993,000 dong, about $70. Not bad for an elaborate meal for something like 11 people.

Came home, and sat downstairs watching TV while others talked. Me apparently just found out that we’re leaving for Hanoi next morning. He dashed out and got some VNese coffee for me, as a parting gift. A whole lot of VNese coffee, actually. I don’t know how I’ll ever get through it all. I’ll have to get one of those instant hot-water things, so I can have coffee at home more regularly.

Thanked Me for spending the day with me and for the gift, and went to bed. Stayed up a little bit working on the web-page.

Day 5: Saturday March 13

Today we leave for Ha Noi. Apparently Quyen will be coming with us. We’re actually postponing the visit to Huong pagoda until after we return from Saigon.


Quyen helped me with packing up. Met her father, made a bit of a fool when I tried to pour tea. It was empty, but I tipped it so far the lid fell into his glass.

We arrived in Ha Noi, found Thanh’s house. Ha left to meet some friends, Thanh dropping her off. Spent some time learning VNese from Quyen, and helping her a little bit with English.

Ha and Thanh returned I’ll be leaving my large suitcase at Thanh’s house, so I packed my overnight bag to take to my hotel down the street.

We all went for a light dinner. I had rice with pork chop, and a Vietnamese version of hot-and-sour soup. Ha left us to go out with her old friends. Thanh, Quyen and I walked to place where I could exchange money. I converted US$200 and CDN$100. It was raining as we walked back. Stopped in a small cafe for beer and talked for a while. Thanh is actually quite good at English, speaking and listening. I need to talk a bit slowly, and sometimes I don’t quite understand her, but it’s generally good. She’s been studying English for seven years.

When I was done my beer (the girls barely made dents in theirs), we continued back. They dropped me at the hotel, where I am now.

Couldn’t get the phone to work to call Thanh’s place. Hotel needed to know about the tour plans. So I walked over to see them. Thanh was about to go out. We talked briefly about the tour for tomorrow. Thanh didn’t want to go. And Quyen, it seems to me, didn’t want to go with me alone. But at the last second, Quyen agreed to come with me. Went back to hotel and bought two tickets.

I talked to Ha on the phone briefly. Later Ha called to say that Thanh would come with us after all. So tomorrow morning I have to buy another ticket.

Still can’t work the phone, so I went back to Thanh’s place again to talk about breakfast. Ha was downstairs talking to a friend with a dental supply business, and Thanh had gone out. Quyen was ready to go to bed, so I left.

Back to the hotel, worked on the webpage for a few minutes, then to bed at 9pm.

Hotel was very humid, everything felt wet. Ran the air-conditioner as I slept. Woke up around 3am, much drier and more comfortable. But didn’t really sleep again.

Day 6: Sunday March 14

Woke up, showered, worked on page briefly. About 7am, went downstairs to buy another ticket for Thanh.

Went over to Thanh’s place. Learned that Thanh’s friend would be coming too. So, have to buy yet another extra ticket.

Waiting for Thanh to return from train station with her friend.

The tour didn’t go terribly well. My companions mostly couldn’t understand the tour-guide. They’re from Hanoi, and the guide moved along very slowly. They were bored stiff. I found it too slow myself. The tour covered the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, his house, and a museum of his impact on Vietnamese history. From there, went to the Museum of Ethnology, which is mostly artifacts from the hill-tribes. We had some fun in a full-size reproduction of a Hmong house outside.

I think we then had lunch. Bun cha, in a very small little hidden restaurant. Quyen practised her English a bit with two tourists from England. I told them a few words of VNese too.

Then on to the Temple of Literature, which was pretty cool. The first university in Vietnam. The souvenir shops here actually have some pretty cool stuff, not all the appalling crap I’m used to seeing in souvenir shops.

Then to the island in Hoan Kiem Lake in the old quarter (near Thanh’s house and my hotel). That was the end of the tour, we walked home.

Split up at this point (about 4pm). We planned to have dinner later. I worked more on the web-page. Ha called, I guess about 6pm. Thanh had gone out, Ha would soon go out.

Ha and Thanh came home soon, and we all took a taxi to the west lake (Ho Tay) and went for a walk. Then back to the old-quarter lake, for drinks. Then home, where I write this now. Time for bed.

Day 7: Monday March 15

Woke up around 3am, didn’t really sleep again. Got out of bed around 7am, showered, worked on the web-page for a while, describing the kegerator now.

Ha called, told me to come over to Thanh’s place.

When I got there, Ha was going out to get her hair washed again, left Quyen and I alone. We read a VNese magazine for a while.

Ha came back, made some calls, now we’re heading to her old university area to look around. Breakfast is in the cards, and we’ll also go buy plane tickets to Hue.


Drove around Hanoi for a while with Ha’s friend Hien. Went to Ha’s old university, walked around a bit. So many nice girls. Then left again. Drove to the edge of town, turned around and came back. We were actually stopped on the road by a beggar. Stood right in front of our jeep, and forced us off to the side. Amazing. Ha gave him/her/it 5000d. A slap upside the head might have done more good.

Continued back, and stopped at the University again. Went up with Ha to meet somebody. I only stayed for a minute or two. Now I’m down in the lobby waiting, with Hien.


Ha returned. We drove around Hanoi for a while more. Went for lunch in the old quarter, at Cha Ca La Vong, on a street informally known as Cha Ca St. Cha Ca is a delicious fried fish dish, served in a pan frying at your table on a charcoal-burning stone contraption. If this was available in Canada, it would be very popular, I’m sure.

Apparently, Cha Ca is the dish, Ca La Vong is the species of fish.


Ha’s friend Hien dropped us back at Thanh’s place. Went up for a while, but not much happening there. Ha decided to have our plane tickets for Hue dropped off there. I left money for my tickets (basically cleaned me out of dong), and came back to my room. I’ve been doing work on the web-page.

Computer crashed while I was editing the page. Wouldn’t boot again. I’ve been trying to fix it. I got it to boot again by disabling just about every non-essential device driver in safe mode. Now I’m reactivating drivers, until I find the one that’s causing the trouble.

Ha just called me over to go for dinner.


I wasn’t very hungry, didn’t enjoy dinner much. After, paid hotel bill, so we can leave early tomorrow morning (4am). Ha is taking a shower, I continue to work on the computer.

Day 8: Tuesday March 16

Woke up at 3:00 am to get ready to leave for Hue. Met Ha and Quyen in front of Thanh’s place. Taxi to airport.

Ha forgot her passport at Thanh’s. She’s arranging to have it taxied out to us.

9:15pm, An Phu+o+’c Hotel, Huê

Getting the passport took too long, we missed our flight. Changed to the next flight, which was at 12:30pm. Had a long, long wait at the airport. Did Anh-Viet lessons with Quyen occasionally.

Later, Ha thought she forgot her cell phone charger. We found it later after we arrived in Hue.

The flight was smooth. It was actually Quyen’s first time in an airplane (may bay, literally “flying machine”). She didn’t give any outward sign of enjoying it, though.

After landing, Ha negotiated a taxi to drive us to Hue, then around some sights, and to Hoi An and Danang tomorrow. We have a flight out of Danang to Saigon tomorrow evening.

The driver was typically insane, like all the drivers here.

Got rooms at this hotel in Hue, which are quite nice. Much better than my room in Hanoi.

We went to the tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, and Minh Mang. Tu Duc is, I think, one of my favourite places on earth. So old, so quiet, and so peaceful, grandiose ruins slowly being absorbed back into Nature. A few tourists around, not many. Lots of VNese students on field trips. The other two weren’t quite as nice. Khai Dinh, from the early 20th century, has a lot of European cathedral influence in his tomb. Built on the side of a large hill, it’s huge and full of pomp and grandeur. Our last one, Minh Mang was also nice and peaceful.

From there, we drove to the Perfume River in Hue to watch the sun go down. Then to a restaurant on the commercial side of the river, where we had a number of Hue specialties. Ha invited the taxi driver to join us. The food was all good, but they all had shrimp. Very small pieces, elegantly presented. Shrimp in rice jelly, wrapped in a leaf. Then small cookie sort of things, with shrimp and a rice-flour sticky blob on top. Then shrimp sausage. Then a rice-flour stuff folden in a leaf, eaten by scraping it up with a spoon. Then rice-flour jelly, shrimp and fried pork rind, served in tiny little individual bowls. All reasonably tasty, despite the shrimp.

From there, drove to another place for the other local speciallty, bun bo hue. I didn’t care for it here too much, I like it better in Canada. Maybe I was just too full.

Went back to the hotel. Ha and I sat on their balcony chatting. Her story should really be written up as a novel. It might make a great chick flick too.

Tomorrow we wake up at 6am, for the long (4 hour) drive to Hoi An. Ha says it was my idea to go to Hoi An. I don’t really remember that, but I don’t remember everything I read in the travel guide, especially place-names.

Day 9: Wednesday March 17

Woke up around 6am, checked out of hotel. Hooked up with our taxi driver, now with a car instead of the noisy unpleasant van from yesterday. Went to visit Buddhist temple in Hue. Stopped for breakfast of bun cha, Hue-style (similar to the way Pho Dau Bo serves it). Delicious.

Hit the road for Hoi An. It was a long drive, crossing a mountain range. Pretty scary driving there. Little altars appearing at the roadside occasionally where somebody had died.

Quyen and I did a lot of chatting on the blackberry during this trip. It’s often quite hard to understand her.

On the way to Hoi An, passed a large number of shops selling carved stone artworks. It seems to be a big industry around Danang. In Hoi An itself, there weren’t any such shops. Hoi An is a small town that decided in the early 20th to ban any further development in the “old town” area. It’s supposed to be a preservation of the old lifestyle, but somehow it feels more like a theme-park to me. Like the “Traditional Vietnam” ride at Disneyland. Didn’t really like it much.

On the way back to Danang, we stopped at a couple stone art manufacturers. I ended up buying a 2m high white marble nude figure that I quite like. It will look very impressive in my foyer. It cost US$700, plus $300 shipping and taxes. To buy it in Canada would cost thousands or 10-thousands, I’m sure. The workers who make them earn a pittance. I won’t receive it for a couple months, unfortunately.

We couldn’t spend much time in Danang itself. Had pho bo at a small stand, then coffee across the street. Then to the airport, and sent the driver home so he wouldn’t have to do the treacherous mountain drive in the dark.

Flight to Saigon was on a turboprop. Ha’s old friend Quang, met us at the airport with his girlfriend. He seems like a nice guy. They drove us around Saigon briefly before taking us to the hotel where Ha’s brother-in-law Me is staying. Got rooms, settled in.

Me called a little later to gather me up for some late dinner. We went to a place with VNese and Chinese food. Had a pork and egg-noodle soup, quite nice, and a “333” Saigon beer (alright).

Back to hotel, quick shower, diary update, and now blessed sleep. 1:30am.

Day 10: Thursday March 18

Even the cheapest fleabag hotels in Canada have shower curtains. The idea does not seem to occur to them here. But then, the cheapest hotels in Canada aren’t $20/night either. It’s otherwise a decent hotel.


We’re supposed to go to a wedding later today. Ha called us down to go to breakfast with Quang and his girlfriend (Que Huong). It was good, I had banh uot, grilled pork and lettuce rolled in a thick rice noodle.

After breakfast, Quang dropped me back at the hotel. He was going to work, Ha going to get her hair washed. I guess Quyen was going with Ha. I spent a few hours finishing my web-page about the kegerator. Going to call Ha and see what’s happening.


Couldn’t get the phone to work, as usual. Walked around the block just to see what was there. Nothing interesting. There’s a museum across the street about the American War (that’s what they call it here, I guess because all their wars were Vietnam wars.) Don’t really want to see it, the war depresses me.

Got back to hotel, asked about phone. I get the impression mobile phones can’t be dialed direct from the rooms. Ha said she was coming back soon.

Went back to my room, read Lord of the Rings for a while. Ha called me down to head out for some supper, I guess around 4:30. Ha, Quyen, Quang and Huong drove to a very windy (so many fans turned on) place, where we had crispy puffed crackers, topped with shrimp or ground beef, rolled in greens and dipped in the ubiquitous nuoc mam (fish sauce).

Back to the hotel. Quang was supposed to pick us up around 6:30 to go to Vinh’s wedding reception. Vinh is the guy I met on the plane to VN, sitting beside Nga. And before that, at his father’s funeral in Mississauga.

The reception was quite a large event. Painfully loud karaoke lessened my enjoyment considerably. Lots of dishes served, can’t really remember them all. Quyen and I sat on our own side of the table, chatting on the Blackberry.

After the reception, we went to a coffee house. A really wonderful place, dark, comforrable cushy chairs around each table. On the way there, I heard the name Nga mentioned as well. When we arrived, Ha’s friend Thuy was already waiting for us. Quyen and I again got our own side of the table. Quyen rarely talks, even with VNese people. She really is very introverted.

Day 11: Friday March 19

Woke up, read LotR for a while. Ha called to say we’d be going for breakfast soon, after her shower.

Went for pho with Huong and her brother. Apparently that coffee shop we went to last night was 10x more expensive than anywhere else. Excessive, perhaps, but it probably helps maintain the nice quiet atmosphere, by keeping it uncrowded.

After pho, to a coffee shop. Joined by Ha’s childhood friend Thanh.

Thanh drove Quyen and I to an internet cafe near the hotel. Spent an hour there answering emails. We were going to walk back to the hotel, but Thanh showed up first. Drove back to hotel. Quyen went up to her room, Thanh and I set out on motorbike for a tour. Thanh is actually a tour-guide.

We went to a Taoist temple, then to Chinatown, to a temple in Chinatown, to the famous Ben Thanh market (kinda disappointing), and back to the hotel.

Ha came home. Told us about dinner with Thuy at 7:30. Also, apparently her brother-in-law was going for dinner too, and I could go with him if I wanted. Me came up to the room with a friend of his, and we talked for a while.

Everyone left for dinner at the same time, momentarily making me believe it was a single dinner with Me and Thuy. Quyen and I went with Ha and Thuy, but Me and his friends went somewhere else.

The restaurant was strange: the food prepared prepared in an open kitchen that surrounded the dining area. To cool the place, they had large fans that emitted a spray of mist. I don’t know what it was, maybe water. It didn’t seem to make us wet. Weird.

After that, walked to an ice-cream shop. Met other old friends of Ha. After that, the others were going to go bar hopping. Quyen and I caught a taxi home. I didn’t really want to sit in the English bubble anymore.

We stayed up together for a while, before going to bed. Ha apparently didn’t get home until 2am.

Day 12: Saturday March 20

This day we were supposed to go see a house in the suburbs that Me is thinking of buying. But first, had some brunch with Me and Quyen.

Walked to the restaurant at a leisurely pace. The restaurant was in the courtyard of a French-style mansion, probably nobody actually living there. There was also a furniture seller in the yard, with that amazing carved and inlayed furniture that’s so popular here. It’s so beautiful-looking, but godawful uncomfortable. I think we all had some form of beef dish. As usual, Me would not let me pay.

Walked back toward the hotel, with a stop in another restaurant where Ha was dining with some friends to get the key. Up to the rooms to wait until 2 or so, when we planned to go to see the house.

Time came to go to the house. Another friend of Ha was driving us. The house is in a new sprawling development, rather long drive from Saigon, I thought. But a very nice house, about 3000 sq ft. VN houses always have a separate circuit-breaker panel on each floor. I like that.

Ha came home, tired and stressed from all the socializing she had to do. She told Quyen and I to go have dinner with Me and his friends. Sometimes I feel like baggage here, being carried around by so many unfortunate people.

Anyway, time for dinner came. Quyen, Me, myself, and three of his friends, one of them I had already met. We headed out on motorbikes. Quite a long drive. Apparently I look funny riding on the back of a motor-bike. I’m taller than most VNese guys.

I wasn’t very hungry, and didn’t really enjoy dinner much. In my usual linguistic bubble. Though some of Me’s friends spoke good English, I still didn’t have much to talk about with them. The guy sitting beside me, an importer of brewing equipment and ingredients, would occasionally start telling me something that I couldn’t follow, it seemed to go nowhere with no point, but I probably just missed the beginning, so I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.

As usual, they didn’t let me pay.

I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel. But when we got there (my driver and I), it turned out that the others had stopped along the way to go to a coffee shop. I didn’t really want to go, but off we went. I wanted to just collect Quyen and walk or taxi back to the hotel, but Me insisted we stay for a drink. Cafe sua da, while I sat in my linguistic bubble. Chatted a little bit with Quyen on the Blackberry, but she was sitting too far away.

I tried to pay again. Again failed. This whole paying for dinner thing is so frustrating, I just don’t want to bother with it anymore. They won’t let me pay for anything… fine.

Day 13: Sunday March 21

Woke up at 7:30am. Ha called, and told me Quyen and her were going to their cousin’s place. Their cousin was already downstairs waiting. I couldn’t be ready in time, so I told them to go without me.

The local microflora seem to have finally caught up with me. Having some considerable digestive upset now. Started taking medicine.

Me called to invite me out to breakfast. I went, but said we shouldn’t go far from the hotel. We had pho, and then stopped for coffee on the way back. Didn’t talk much, I don’t really have much to say anymore.

Back at the hotel, more digestive trouble. In a few minutes, Ha called to tell me we’re going to Van’s family’s place.

Ha called again, I decided not to go to Van’s. I don’t know yet how well the pills are working. Quyen is also not going. Ha suggested I could take her to Ben Thanh.

Eventually, I became convinced that the medicine was working. We took a taxi to Ben Thanh. Walked around for a while, she bought a shirt, and a cheap ring. We had a light lunch, I wasn’t really hungry.

Walked around some other shops outside the market. Walked back to the other side of Ben Thanh. We passed a little shop with a photobooth that prints your pictures like you’re on the cover of a famous magazine. We did some.

She wanted to get her hair washed and straightened, but didn’t have enough money. Eventually I convinced her that I would be glad to pay for it. Now I’m waiting for her in the salon.

There are also a bunch of “Shampoo for Men” salons here. There is a disproportionate number of very attractive women working these salons. I suspect “extra” services are offered with the shampoo. Maybe instead of the shampoo.

Kept walking after the shampoo. Eventually, we decided to head back toward Ben Thanh, but on the way we stopped in an Internet cafe for a while.

When we finished there, it was getting dark and I decided we should go home. We were going to go to Quang’s place for dinner in the evening.

Day 14: Monday March 22

Woke up early to leave for Mui Ne, but not early enough. I had to pack in 10 minutes. It was hectic. Ended up forgetting both the Blackberry and our passports.

The drive to Phan Thiet city and the Mui Ne beach is very long. We arrived around 11:30, and checked in. I gave them my old, expired passport, and an explanation of where the real one was. That seemed to satisfy them. I’ll never understand this weird obsession with passports that they have in Vietnam hotels.

The resort (Sinh Cafe Mui Ne Resort) consisted of individual bungalows, nicely appointed, with good showers. It’s right on the beach, and has a pool. Also an open-air restaurant, though I didn’t find it very good.

Our package included tickets for lunch, dinner, breakfast and another lunch.

We got together at 4:00 for a tour of the sand-dunes. We took xe om (riding on the back of motor-bikes) for the tour. The first stop was a small harbour town where a lot of fishing boats were. After that, the dunes proper. All red sand, and big sweeping dunes. Very cool and Martian-looking.

We were approached right away by some kids offering to guide us (not necessary; the dunes were right across the road), and give us “crazy carpets” to slide down the dunes. They also took some pictures of Quyen and I together on the dunes. I opted to take the sand slide, Quyen did not. The kids asked for 100000 dong for the slide, which I thought was crazy. Gave the kids 50k dong (still a princely sum for Vietnam) to share. They accepted it, but one kid kept bugging me for another 20K. It was cute for a while, but got annoying.

Had some coconut juice at a stand across the highway from the dunes, then on to the next stop: sand cliffs. Very cool, solified sand. Has a completely alien look. This place would be a cool movie set.

From there, back to the hotel. We relaxed for a while in our rooms. I had a shower to get sand out of my hair and toes. We went for dinner, it wasn’t very good. My fish had so many bones, it was just taking way too long to eat.

After dinner, we walked down to the beach. There were lots of crabs coming out of the sand and scuttling around.

We went to bed quite early.

Day 15: Tuesday March 23

Woke up just a few moments before Quyen came to my door. After I had a shower, we went for breakfast. I had crepes with pineapple, Quyen had an ommelette.

We went for a long walk down the beach. Saw lots of fisherman and locals at work. To get from their fishing boats to shore, they sit in round woven baskets that are waterproofed with some goop, and paddle. Collected some interesting shells she seemed to want. It was a long walk, tired her out. We walked back along the road (just few yards from the beach.)

We stopped in the resort’s internet cafe. It was rather expensive for Vietnam, and slow, sharing a dialup from one of the PCs.

After that, went to the resort’s bar (also open-air). We had some ice cream (kem), and I also had a cocktail. It was nice, though the bartender seemed quite inexperienced.

We rested for a while in our rooms until it was time to check out and get lunch. Not very hungry, we just had shakes.

Got back to the hotel in Saigon, and rested. We planned to have dinner with Ha in the evening, and go shopping tomorrow morning, before we leave for Hanoi. Dinner was good, a buffet-style place. Then back to the hotel to sleep.

Day 16: Wednesday March 24

Woke up to shower and finish packing for the return to Hanoi.

Quyen came over, and we left for breakfast and shopping. Couldn’t find a place we liked near the hotel, so we took taxi to Ben Thanh, and ate at a stall inside.

Quyen wanted to buy a gift for Thanh, but she didn’t know what to get. She seems not much better at buying gifts than I am. We looked around a fair bit, but didn’t find anything we wanted.

Headed onto the street to see some shops in the area. We walked around a couple more blocks. There was a shop selling womens shirts that they design and make right in the shop. I thought they were pretty cool. We bought one for Thanh, around 200,000 Dong, a lot for a shirt in Vietnam, but still cheap for Canada.

Back to the hotel to meet Ha and check out. Ha wasn’t there yet, so we spent time in our rooms. It was getting quite late, so called Ha’s cell. She was on her way back to the hotel. She arrived, Quang arrived, we checked out, and headed off to the airport. We had quite a few bags of vegetables and stuff to carry on. Quite a pain. One of Ha (and Quyen’s) cousins was at the airport to see us off. The flight was only 1h 40m or so.

We planned different accomodations for this stay in Hanoi. Ha wanted to entertain some visitors, so Thanh’s place was not very good for that. I didn’t really like the Green Hotel where I stayed before either. We decided to get two rooms at a decent hotel in central Hanoi.

Taxi driver in Hanoi suggested the Carmellia hotel. We just took his suggestion, and came to regret it. After we had checked in, we decided we didn’t like the place at all. It was pretty crappy. When I ran water into the sink, it somehow came out all over the floor at my feet. We looked in my guide book and made some calls, and eventually found out about some nice rooms (suites, actually) in the Government Guest House (which also accepts regular hotel business). Taxied over to see them, but only Ha went in to look.

Ha liked the rooms a lot. Taxi back to the Carmellia hotel. The Carmellia would not let us go without paying for the whole night, even though we had only been there a couple hours. But if we waited, the Government Guest house might not have the rooms for us the next day. So, we had to decide: do we take our lumps and pay both hotels for tonight? The Carmellia rate was 200,000, so for all three of us it would be a $60 lesson: always look at the hotel room before unloading the taxi. We decided to take the hit, and get the hotel we really wanted.

Carted all the luggage back down, and checked out. Taxi to the Guest House. The lobby and halls were a bit worn, this place is fairly old. But the suites are really, really nice. First a small foyer, then a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. A balcony wraps around the living room, and the bedroom has it’s own balcony. Living room also has a nicely-appointed desk for work.

Bathroom has a bidet, but still no shower curtains! Why do these VNese not understand shower curtains?

At one point, Quyen and I accidentally got off the elevator on the wrong floor, and walked right into somebody else’s suite. Embarrassing.

Ha and Quyen are on the fourth floor, I’m on the third.

Day 17: Thursday March 25

Ha and Quyen have gone to get their hair washed. I’m here settling into this comfortable home away from home. Wrote these diary entries for the last few days all at once.

Now, to try to fix my computer again. It locked up again, and won’t boot again. I’ll try the same fix, disabling device drivers until it boots. I hope I can find the exact source of the problem.

Went down with Quyen for breakfast, but apparently we missed it. So we went straight out. We made our way to Thanh’s place after a bowl of chau (congi). Quyen and Thanh talked for quite a while, while I flipped through the Vietnam guidebook, looking for interesting things to do around Hanoi. Didn’t find much.

We left the house, and walked to a shopping mall. A very Canadian-feeling mall, more like a department store. But the departments were kind of scattered around, and their seemed to be a lot of overlap. I was hoping to find an Anh-Viet translating computer, but didn’t see any. All I bought was some candy.

We went outside, and got lunch at a cafe. Very western food. I ordered a bo vien (ie, beef ball) soup, which I imagined would be VNese, but it very much a Western-style soup, with meatballs. Very simple and basic. Thanh had it too. I loved it, my first Western food in two weeks. Thanh didn’t like it much.

From there, we stood on a street corner for a while, trying to think of what to do. I flipped through the book. The only interesting looking things for the group appeared to be the craft villages outside Hanoi (ie, the ceramics village and the silk village.) We got a cab, but the cabby said those places were boring. He wanted to take us to another place, but he wanted to go a long slow route, probably to run up the cost. We bailed out of that taxi, and walked to our hotel to regroup and think of something to do.

I would have been happy to leave them together, while I went on a long walk around the shops. Especially as Quyen had a sore foot. But that didn’t happen.

In my room, Thanh and Quyen talked, while I worked on my computer a bit. They suggested I call Ha to find out about dinner. I did, but she was busy with company.

About 6, she called back, and suggested we get together in an hour so so. We decided to try to catch the water-puppet show in the evening after dinner. I called to find out when the show was, but there was no answer. My book said 8pm, so we assumed it would be that.

Ha finished her preparations, we caught a taxi to Thanh’s place to pick up her brother, Dat. We decided we wouldn’t have time for dinner before the theatre, so we went straight there. Had to wait for a while before we could buy tickets. Ha came back, bought tickets for us all, then we went to a restaurant nearby for papaya salad with jerky.

Back for the show, it was quite good and entertaining, even though I could not follow the dialogue. The theatre was full of mostly Westerners. They seemed to have a chorus of children to provide responses to the narrator that would normally be there if regular children were watching.

The seating was such that using my video camera would be impractical. I took a few stills and short bits of video with Ha’s camera.

After, went for a light dinner of pho. Dropped off Thanh and Dat. Walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. We got ice cream.

Day 18: Friday March 26

Had breakfast of pho in the hotel, then went out shopping for books with Ha, Quyen, and one of Ha’s friends (don’t know her name, but I’ve met her before).

Back at the hotel, Quyen and I tried to fill time waiting for Ha to book a tour of Bat Tranh for us. I was looking in some English books Quyen bought.

I went for a walk by myself. I walked pretty much all around Hoan Kiem lake, via sidestreets. It’s been almost and hour and a half. I’m in a dank basement bar near the hotel now, drinking a beer and writing this.

When I got back to the hotel, Quyen was in my room, watching TV. I went to the computer and did some work on my web-page.

We went out again, walking and shopping. Eventually found ourselves in the neighbourhood of Thanh’s place, so we stopped there, though Quyen thought Thanh was in Hai Phong. She was right, but Dat was there. They talked a little bit, and we decided to get dinner with Dat. Went to a place right around the corner.

After dinner, we went to an Internet cafe. I couldn’t get much done on the crappy computer. I waited for Quyen, and actually got the computer working better. We left when she was done. Went back to the hotel, talking on BB along the way.

Day 19: Saturday March 27

Woke up around 6am. Went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant with Quyen. Neither of us felt like having pho again, had ommelettes with a loaf of bread.

Went to the lobby to call a taxi. Went to Bat Trang, the ceramics village. It was a longish drive, along a very rough dirt road. Never really felt like we left Hanoi, but that’s typical of north Vietnam: every road is lined completely with houses, so each town seems to blend into the next.

Bat Trang did indeed have a whole lot of ceramics and pottery shops. We went in about 7 of them. I bought a small vase, and a serving dish set. Both will be gifts, though I know not who for.

Taxi back to Hanoi, we had him stop at Don Xuan market. I just found it mentioned in the book, thought we could take a look to fill time. It wasn’t very interesting. From there, walked back to the hotel.

Ha came by to say she was leaving for Hai Phong for the evening, to see her father (who was sick). She would return either late in the night, or the next morning. Quyen and I toyed with the idea of going to Hai Phong too, but there’s nothing for me to do there.

We went for dinner at the restaurant next door. From there, I thought we might go to a jazz club mentioned in the book, Jazz Club by Nguyen Minh. It’s in the Old Quarter, opposite side of the lake from the hotel. We had a bit of trouble finding it (due to my incompetance). It was a nice club, and the jazz was good. The first set ended about 9:45. We were tired, so we headed home.

Back here, writing, and now time for sleep.

Day 20: Sunday March 28

A fairly quiet day today. Went down for breakfast with Quyen at 9:30 or so. From there, took a taxi to the West Lake (Ho Tay), where we spent some time in a temple. Then we spent an hour paddling around in one of those bicycle swan boats. After that, ice-cream across the street. Taxi back to the hotel.

Quyen had a nap, I worked on the web-page. She woke up in an hour or so. Quyen wanted to see a singer concert this evening. I did not know how to find out about one. I suggested the circus in Lenin Park, which starts nightly around 8pm.

We got hungry again around 4pm. Thanh was not yet back from Hai Phong, and Ha was still busy with her friends. So we headed out, walking, to find dinner. Found ourselves in the vicinity of Cha Ca street (which I had rediscovered the night before while looking for the Jazz club.) Went to the place Ha and I ate before, it was still delicious.

From there, we just walked about the streets for a while, until we stumbled across an internet cafe. Spent a while in there, until about 8pm. Too late for the circus. And I was feeling tired, her too I think. We caught a taxi back to the hotel. Called Thanh, but she was still not home.

Quyen went upstairs to have a bath, I worked on the web-page.

Ha came home, and we talked about Huong Pagoda plans. Leaving tomorrow morning at 5am. Got to wake up around 4am. Sucking. Must sleep now.

Day 21: Monday March 29

Woke up godawful early to go to Huong Pagoda. Managed to fit both my still and video cameras into the video bag, including the telephoto and wide-angle lenses and filters. Amazing.

We were driven by one of Ha’s friend Hien’s employees again. A fairly long drive, down roads that get smaller and rougher as you go. We reached a town where we had to bribe some official to let us drive down a perfectly good road where cars are not allowed (probably for no other reason than to allow them to collect bribes.) If you don’t pay the bribe, it’s a long, long walk to the docks.

We parked the car inside the house of a family, I guess they provide that service as a business. Ha went to buy some she would need at the temples. Incense, etc.

Got onto a boat for the next leg of the journey. A metal flat-bottomed canoe sort of thing, rowed by a woman. There were hundreds of these boats there, clogging up the water so that we had a hard time navigating past them all. Almost all unused, because the peak time for Buddhists to go to the pagoda is past (a month or so after the lunar new year.)

Stopped just outside of the town, where Ha did a few Buddhist things. Quyen did a little bit too, but mostly just waited with me. She’s not officially a Buddhist.

Back to the boat, to row to the landing and the foot of the mountain. Passed through very peaceful rice paddies, with big rock outcroppings and ducks. Reminiscent of Ha Long bay, or Tam Coc.

The boat landed at a strip of businesses, selling food and souvenirs, and bamboo sticks to help with the climb. I thought the sticks would be silly, but we got them anyway. I was wrong, they really do help maintain your balance on the slippery climb.

The climb up to the temple cave was long, arduous, and dangerous. The entire path has been paved with rough stones. According to Ha, it’s all new since she was there. They’re all worn smooth already, and all covered in slippery mud. In places, the climb is steep, and the rocks are set up as stairs, which are pretty easy to climb. In other places it’s flat, and I think the rock paving is more hindrance because it makes the ground very uneven. In some places, you have to descend stairs (especially on the way back), and that’s the worst. You can’t be sure of your footing before you unbalance yourself to step down.

The entire route is lined with people selling food and drinks, and they usually also have flat areas where you can rest, and even sleep. These aren’t hotels, there are no doors or windows. Just a flat platform under a tarp.

We didn’t go to the highest temple, not enough time. The temple we did go to was in a cave at the top of one of the mountains. Legend has it that the original Buddha stayed in that cave.

Ha did her stuff, Quyen and I mostly just watched. I took some pictures. Took very few on the climb, because there wasn’t generally much to see.

The climb up was a lot of work, but the climb down was more dangerous. I saw Ha slip many times. Quyen actually slipped and fell at one point. Her head bounced off a rock, but she wasn’t seriously hurt. It must have been a light bounce.

I heard many remarks about Ong Tay (“Mr. West”) on the path. Quyen translated them once in a while.

On the way out, Ha stopped a few times to buy boatloads of small little fruits to make some kind of cider with. She ended up with 10kg of them, three large bags.

There is another temple at the foot of the mountain, which must be visited only after the one at the top, for mysterious Buddhist reasons. We went there, took some pictures. Then stopped for pho in the village. Found our boat lady again, and headed out.

Ha talked to the boat lady, she said she only made US$1 for rowing us. Ha wanted to tip her at the end, but she told us to give it to her parents. Apparently her parents are the people whose house we parked the car in.

Long drive back again, about 4pm. Back in Hanoi, had a shower, and relaxed for a while.

Thanh came over to the hotel. Thanh, Quyen and I went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Then we got a taxi, and tried to find a concert to see. Apparently (they were talking all in VNese), there weren’t any, because we ended up going to a karaoke instead.

It was not what I expected. I thought it would be like a bar, with a lot of people. But it’s actually a private room, with it’s own TV and karaoke machine. They have a book listing thousands of songs you can select by number.

Quyen and Thanh did a few VNese songs. They also did an English song, at my request. They were pretty bad, but I think Quyen actually has a not-bad voice.

Somehow, I also did some songs. Imagine (John Lennon), Something (Beatles), Heart of Gold (Neil Young), He Aint Heavy (Hollies), Hello (Lionel Ritchie), Singing in the Rain, and Help (Beatles). I think the only one I did well on was the Neil Young.

When we left, the tab was over 400,000 dong. Apparently the special Ong Tay price.

Taxi back to the hotel.

Day 22: Tuesday March 30

Woke up, showered. Cleaners walked in while I was drying off. Went down for breakfast, Thanh still with us.

After breakfast, Thanh went to her classes. Quyen and I went up to the room. Around 3pm, we went out for some lunch. Struck out in another random direction, and soon found an Indian restaurant. She had never had Indian food. The menu was in English only, no VNese. I get the impression it’s not a popular place with VN people. I liked it, the food was quite good.

From there, we grabbed a taxi to Lenin Park. Paid admission to get in. Walked around a bit, then sat by the lake chatting. Left the park, and walked through some very narrow alleys, looking for a taxi to take us back to the hotel. The narrow alleys finally emerged onto a very busy street. Split into express and collector lanes, and the occasional taxis never came by in the collectors. Just kept walking until we rounded a corner onto a more normal street. Managed to flag a cab eventually, and got back to the hotel around 5:30 I guess.

Ha was with friends in the hotel restaurant. Ha’s sister and Quyen’s sister were up in Ha’s room. She told us a group was leaving for dinner in an hour or so. Quyen had a bath while I worked on the web-page.

Ha and others appeared to take us out for the dinner. It was a pretty nice restaurant, but I wasn’t very hungry, since I had a lot of Indian food not long before. Ha and her friends were going to stay late at the restaurant. A bunch of us left to return to the hotel. Ha had not left the room key at reception, so Ha’s sister and Quyen’s sister couldn’t go in. They went to walk around the lake. Quyen and I went up to pack my stuff.

Back in my room, briefly worked on the page, then writing this, now to sleep.

Flight tomorrow is at 11:30, we plan to leave hotel about 9:30.

2 responses to “Vietnam 2004”

  1. Never been to Vietnam and I am trying to decide on whether having read your post on this whether I want to go, interesting read, thank you

    • when I read this, I stared remember about our story. A nice story with sad ending. Now both of us have private family and I am going to wait for a my new boy now. Be happy!

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