Vietnam. The country has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people depending on generation and circumstances. For me, it was always a country that I associated with the Vietnam War. This might have been because I grew up watching movies like Forrest Gump and Full Metal Jacket, however the notion of visiting the country (much less for leisure) never really crossed my mind. However, a couple of months ago my friend from Houston contacted me and said that she was going to be in Vietnam to visit family/friends and offered to be my translator/tour guide if I could get myself over to Vietnam. If I did not have a local that knew the language/culture, I probably was never going to go to Vietnam which made this opportunity so unique. After checking flight prices from Shanghai (it came out to about $300 round trip on Vietnam Airlines) and booking a hotel using my miles, I was set to go to Vietnam. Originally I was supposed to just stay within Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), however after a coworker showed me some pictures of his trip to the island Phu Quoc, I decided to book a couple of days at a hotel on the beach.
I left my apartment in Shanghai about mid afternoon and made my way to Pudong International Airport. Getting to the airport is usually pretty intimidating, but I am getting used to the art of hailing a cab down from the street. After making it to the airport with time to spare, I checked into my flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was really nice and I remember being very impressed with the food served on board. I’ve had the sensation of smelling freshly baked bread on an airplane before (let alone in Coach), however Vietnam Airlines did an awesome job with their dining option and even had some of the best coffee that I have ever had (and I am not even a coffee drinker).
Anyway, after about a four hour flight (where I watched Braveheart on my tablet), I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam is one of the rare countries that Americans actually need to get a visa (China an North Korea are also in the same bucket), however the process to get the visa is very easy. There are a slew of online services that will do the visa application with the consulate for you so that all you have to do is pick up your visa at the airport. I used MyVietnamVisa and it seemed about as good as any other. The one thing I forgot to do was to bring enough money to cover the visa fee at the visa counter in the airport. Luckily, they let me go through customs (keeping my passport as a retainer) and pony some money from an ATM. After catching a metered taxi from the queue, I was off to my hotel The Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. In the taxi, I was able to get my first glimpse of Ho Chi Minh and the ensuing traffic. The first thing that any westerner will notice is the shear number of motorbikes. I’ve been to Taipei (where motorbikes are also prominent), however in Vietnam the numbers are almost overwhelming. They swerve in and out of traffic like schools of fish and it is amazing how much coordination everyone has. I’d definitely get into a wreck if I tried.
The schools of scooters in Ho Chi Minh
Anyway, about ten minutes later I arrived at the hotel and met my friend in the lobby. The Intercontinental is a very nice western hotel and I was very impressed with the service and quality of the hotel. When I was in college, I opted for the cheaper hotels/hostels, however now that I have an adult job I normally tend to get the fancier hotels if price allows. After checking in and dropping off my luggage in my room, I walked with my friend to get a dinner. The place we wanted to go was about ten minutes walking from the hotel and was next to the “reunification” palace. Walking on the street, I started to get the authentic feel that I was in an exotic and different country than the USA (and even China/Japan). The city has a certain smell to it- not a bad smell (although in certain parts those also exist), but almost a spicy aroma that gives you the sense of being in an ethnic and culturally diverse city. At this point, it had already become dark and the streets were dimly lit by the scattered street lights. I remember crossing the road was somewhat stressful in Vietnam, however I had a local with me that was more than happy to keep this dumb foreigner from getting hit by a school of scooters.
The restaurant we went to had a nice feel and atmosphere to it. It was a restaurant that specialized in grilled seafood and had the layout that one might expect from a German Beer Garden. All of the seating was outside and various trees/vegetation decorated the restaurant to give a very nice and relaxed feel. Various mist machines where situated next to strong fans so that the customers would not get too hot during their meal. My friend and I opted to get a variety of seafood dishes. I also took the opportunity to sample the local Saigon beer and was not disappointed. Beer in Asia tends to be on the light side and you are lucky if you can get anything that isn’t a generic lager. Saigon Green, despite being a lager, was very smooth and refreshing. Sitting in the moist evening of Saigon while eating roasted clams with a coconut glaze along with charred scallops in a honey vinegar sauce really made be feel like I was on a legit vacation.
Great shellfish and beer
After dinner we walked back to the hotel (stopping at a Circle K to pick up some tooth paste that I had forgotten) and called it a night. The next morning we had to wake up relatively early to go to the airport to catch a ride to Phu Quoc. As said before, the original plan was to stay in Ho Chi Minh City the entire time, however after seeing a coworker’s pictures from his vacation I decided to take a detour for a couple of days to Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc is a small island situated off the south west coast of Vietnam that is known for its inviting beaches and accommodating tourist resorts. From Ho Chi Minh Airport, we were able to check in quickly and board a prop-jet plane bound for the island. I haven’t been on a prop-jet in ages (I think the last time is when I went from Dallas to Lubbock), however somehow being in the older plane made me feel more adventurous. After a smooth one hour flight (during which we saw the beautiful cityscape of Ho CHi Minh as well as the coastline of Vietnam), we arrived at the airport. I was a bit surprised by the airport- it was very modern. It gave me the false impression that the island was a little bit more developed than I had previously anticipated, however after grabbing a taxi to our hotel I found out that the airport was the most modern part of Phu Quoc (by a very large margin).
The prop-jet to take us to Phu Quoc
The taxi jetted from the airport to a main highway where we were able to see our first glimpse of the beach. Adding even more to the excitement/anticipation, the taxi turned down a very wooded/windy/small side street. We were a bit worried- this was rural. Sure, the hotel had good reviews online, but what happens if it was just some staunch shack in the middle of a Vietnamese beach? The hotel we stayed at was Mai House. After a few minutes on the twisty road we arrived at the hotel where I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel owners/staff were extremely friendly and our “bungalow” was about 20 meters from the beach (we could even see it from our window). It’s a little hard to describe the hotel/resort as I have never really encountered anything like it in the USA. It is almost like a summer camp layout. There is a main lobby and a bunch of individual huts/bungalows lining up to the ocean. We had booked the superior sea side bungalow that cost about $65 a night. I really recommend Mai House as the service/location are impeccable. The owner is really friendly and speaks great English (I sensed a bit of a French sounding accent).
Entrance of Mai House
View from Mai House’s beach
Our bungalow itself was like something out of a movie. A huge king sized bed with a mosquito net draped around the edges. Hard clay floors with the various commodities/furniture that you would find in any five star resort. As expected there as an air conditioner (I made sure there was before I booked) that worked like a jet engine. The bathroom was simple, but adequate. The shower in sort of an open setting and a separate outdoor washroom to clean sand off your flip flops after a long day at the beach.
Our Superior Seaside Bungalow
King bed complete with mosquito net
We decided to take the day easy (we arrived around 1pm or so) and just soak in the sounds and sights of the beach. The resort had their own private beach front cafe/restaurant and we ordered a variety of seafood dishes. The highlight of lunch was a sweet and sower seafood stew that included fresh squid, white fish, and octopus. I ordered a refreshing tiger beer and relaxed while overlooking the beach. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We went swimming in the beach and also walked along and enjoyed the sunset while eating grilled squid with a lime juice and salt dip. One thing I noticed about the beach is that there was a lot of trash. The water itself was clean, however slightly above the banks of sand you could see trash/litter from all of the resorts. Mai House appeared to do a good job cleaning it up, however the trash was still noticeable (however like I said, the view was not spoiled).
Sunset on the beach with a dog
The next day we had booked a tour of snorkeling/boating with one of the local tour agencies. After a quick breakfast by the beachfront (Mai House provided a standard breakfast of fruits, omelettes, bacon, etc.), the tour van picked us up at about 8am. The van took us to a larger bus where we joined other members of the tour group. You might remember that on my post about Chongming Island I mentioned that the bus ride was the roughest that I have eve been on, however the Vietnam tour bus was 100x worse. It didn’t help that the roads were pretty much non-existent (dirt bath with tons of bumps/potholes), however it was pretty crazy. There were a couple of times that I was airborne off my seat. Still, the bus took us through some of the more rural parts of the island (which is saying a lot). You could see Vietnamese cows grazing next to the beach and there were also rurals houses lining up the thick and muggy jungle setting. Our first stop was a pearl farm. They showed how to cut the pearl out of a shell and my friend bought an authentic pearl ring for a discounted price.
Road that the tour bus took- so bumpy!
Taking a pearl from a shell
After about 40 more minutes of the bumpy roller coaster bus, we arrived at the beach where our boat was located. There was a bit of an outdoor cafe lining the beach with various souvenir shops lining the beach side. Once we got to the beach it was absolutely gorgeous. This is the sort of beach that you see in movies and the word picturesque does not even begin to describe how beautiful it is. The beach had powder white sand sitting below crystal blue waters. Various tour boats sat a good 50 meters or so off the beach. We loaded up on a smaller boat that took us out to the main larger boat. The larger boat was pretty standard. It was two floors and pretty spacious. All in all, there were about 25 other people in the tour groups with nationalities ranging everywhere from Vietnamese to European to American. One lady that we made good friends with was French (although living in Spain). After taking a few pictures and sitting through a safety demonstration, we were off.
View from the beach
Small boat to take us to larger boat.
Me on the larger boat
The boat took us around the island and we admired the awesome scenery and views. The lush jungle mixed with the green hills mixed with the blue water really gave a euphoric feeling of enjoyment and vacation. Our first stop was a fishing location where we were given a few fishing lines and started to line fish. This was pretty much a bust and only a few people caught fish. I was a little boat sick at this point, however the feeling eventually subsided after I drank enough water. Our next two stops were definitely the high point of the tour- snorkeling. My friend and I were given snorkeling gear and we jumped off the boat to admire the gorgeous coral and sea life of Phu Quoc. I saw many fish, coral, crabs and vegetation. The one regret is that I forgot the sunscreen and ended up getting a pretty killer sunburn which was felt for the next week or so. One interesting thing to note is that the weather was absolutely perfect. This was a bit unusual because it was monsoon season. According to the hotel owner, it had been raining hard constantly for about a week before we arrived- so we were very lucky as the vacation could have been spoiled by an untimely monsoon.
Snorkeling! So fun!
After snorkeling at both stops we had a light lunch on the boat. For fear of my boat sickness, I did not partake in the meal however it looked like a good mix of fresh seafood and vegetables. After lunch, we also paid for the tour. It was absurdly cheap. It came out to about $20 for the entire day. This included the bus ride from the hotel, a 1.5L bottle of water, the boat ride, snorkel/fishing gear, and a lunch. For that price you cannot go wrong! After the lunch we returned back to the original beach where we were given some free time. My friend and I tried to get a jet ski, however there was some problem with the gas of the jet ski so we had no luck. At the beach I bought one of those Vietnamese hats for a dollar or so. After another bump filled ride, we arrived at our hotel.
I bought a Vietnamese hat
Somewhat exhausted, we decided to take it easy for the night. We walked to a smaller cafe that was near the main road of the resort and ordered some seafood dishes. This was one of those restaurants where you picked out the fish before they cook it. I picked a red snapper, a tuna, and a few squids. I was not disappointed with this food. The squid was some of the best squid that I ever had and was grilled with various spices/herbs and served with a lime juice chili sauce. The tuna/red snapper were prepared in a similar manner, however it was up to us to pick apart the fish with our chopsticks and navigate around the bones. Of course there was some ice cold Saigon beer to wash it all down.
Picking out our dinner
The grilled squid- my favorite!
After dinner, we bought a couple of souvenirs (postcards which I mailed to friends/family) and returned back to the resort for an early night. We were set to fly out the next day around 4pm, so we woke up early to enjoy the beach life some more before we left. The seafood we had the day before was so good that we returned to the shop and had some more tuna/squid. On the way back we decided to get a massage as they were really cheap. My friend also wanted to get a pedicure/manicure, so I entertained the idea and went along with it. The massage/manicure/pedicure was very cheap (maybe around $10) and was very relaxing. After grabbing a tequila sunrise on the beach, we checked out of the hotel and headed for the airport. After an uneventful one hour flight in the prop-jet, we were back in Ho Chi Minh City and back at the hotel. We decided to order Vietnamese pizza hut (which to be honest was nothing special) and called it a night.
Getting a pedicure
The next day was the only full day that we had planned in Ho Chi Minh City. After waking up, we took Uber to an indoor market where we were set to buy some souvenirs. I bought some dried kiwis, mangoes, and coconuts for my coworkers as well as some snake/scorpion whiskey as my own souvenir. The whiskey had a full cobra/scorpion in the bottle which was bit intimidating. Of course I don’t plan on drinking it as it looks far too dangerous, however it is an interesting souvenir. I also stopped by a pharmacy where I bought some prescription drugs for dirt cheap. Nothing dangerous, just standard allergy medicine and antibiotics for if I get sick in China. We also stopped by the central post office where I mailed a couple of more post cards to friends./family. After shopping, we walked back the restaurant that we had gone to the first day and had another round of grilled seafood and glass noodle salad.
Market near our hotel
That evening, we met up with a few other friends and went to this sort of Vietnamese tourist city on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh called Binh Quoi. This is a small area that is situated along a river and has been built up with traditional Vietnamese architecture and gardens. The main theme of the area is the huge buffet that contains many traditional Vietnamese dishes. We took a few pictures and helped ourselves to generous portions of grilled seafood, sweet and sour snail soup, and other seafood dishes. Again, the weather was perfect (albeit a little humid) and the entire atmosphere was very enjoyable. There was also a band that was playing traditional Vietnamese music that added to the ethnic atmosphere.
Binh Quoi. Decided not to try the bridge
Nice and peaceful at Binh Quoi
Various grilled seafood
After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel and hung out by the pool for an hour or so. The pool was a little bit interesting as the bottom part was see-through and you could see anyone that was in the pool. My friend took a couple of funny pictures of me.
The next day I had to wake up very early and catch an early flight back to Shanghai. It was a bit sad saying goodbye to my friend, however I am sure that I will see them again soon. The entire vacation was very enjoyable and I am glad that I made the borderline impulse decision to go. Vietnam might be a country that stirs a lot of bad history with Americans, but I can vouch and say that now it is a very welcoming and beautiful country with very friendly and hospitable people. The cost of living is also very cheap and makes it very easy for budget travelers to live like a king on a very small budget. I am glad I went and am looking forward to my next adventure.