Friday, January 31, 2014

Vietnam: Timeless Charm

From the hidden charm of Asia, Vietnam slowly progresses to become Asia's timeless charm. This wouldn't be possible if not for the strong campaign and unity of people behind working for its tourism goals. Vietnam truly lives to its campaign since a visit to the country is an offer to its timeless charm - places, people, history, tradition and culture. My return to Vietnam after 7 years was a real worthy return trip because Vietnam on its progress has truly become a destination of choice.

If you want to have an authentic taste of Vietnam's timeless charm, visit its emerging capital of business, tourism, history and economy - Ho Chi Minh City. Named after its reknowned revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, it is formerly known as Saigon which is still known for this name until now. In Saigon, signs of progress are evident but still intact with tradition and history that still lives in the city. In a corner they may be skyscraper buildings and modern structures like BITEXCO Tower but also in every corner you’ll see Vietnamese people honoring their culture by wearing their traditional dress of Ao dai.

A glimpse of Vietnam from the plane window as it ascends to Tan Soh Nhat International Airport.
Before I fully explore Saigon, I traveled 5 hours to a coastal town of Mui Ne in the city of Phan Thiet and Binh Thuan Province to see the timeless charms that I can find there. Our accommodation was at Mai Am Guesthouse, which also arranged our tours in exploring Mui Ne. Via jeepney, we started the exploration of Mui Ne to its famed sand dunes. We traveled for 30 minutes to reach the White Sand Dunes. It was early in the morning trip so we can watch the sunrise in the vast desert haven. And when the sunrise starts to unfold, I witness the most beautiful day in Vietnam. The White Sand Dunes also reveals itself - a beautiful and scenic vast white sand desert marvelously lighted by sunrise. This makes a visit to White Sand Dunes ideal at morning time. Then, we had a short stopover in Red Dunes Formation, which is like Red Canyon version of Mui Ne only smaller. The red dunes are formation of eroded walls of red soil in the site where there is an overlooking point to see it. We headed next to Red Sand Dunes which is called for its reddish orange sand. It is also a vast desert of sand dunes with scenic sights of a desert haven but because of its reddish sand dunes, it is best to visit it by sunset time.

Vietnam sunrise in the most beautiful day in Vietnam.
White Sand Dunes reveals its beauty by sunrise.
 Next, we visited the local Fishing Village of Mui Ne where we get to sample a daily life in the fishing village of Vietnamese people. Here, I saw the different sea harvest of Mui Ne people sold and traded which are mostly something new to my eyes like giant squids, lobsters, sea snails and giant seashells. Aside from seeing the daily life of a fishing village here, the port is also a scenic sight with boats dock near the port. A few minutes from here is the Fairy Stream or Suoi Tien, a beautiful scenic stream with sand dunes and rock formation formed between the sides of the shallow stream. Fairy Stream is a 2 kilometer walkthrough stream that is best enjoyed by admiring the natural beauty and formations that springs in between it. The last sight we explored is Mui Ne Beach, which undoubtedly the town’s famed tourists spot. Many resorts were located at Mui Ne Beach where tourists lounge, swimming or sun bathing around. Though it sand is ivory white, tourist still love to flock here since Mui Ne has a year-round hot and dry climate. 

Red Sand Dunes is perfect for sunset viewing.
The magical sight of Fairy Stream.
Experience Vietnam beach life at Mui Ne Beach.

After an overnight trip to Mui Ne, we return to Ho Chi Minh City for our Mekong River tour. I have been to this tour to Mekong River, 7 years ago on my first visit to Vietnam but since my travel companions have not experience it yet, I gave it a go and see what’s up with Mekong River cruise after 7 years. A Mekong River cruise is basically an immersion tour and trip to see the daily life and culture of Vietnamese people living in Mekong River particularly to the Ben Tre Province. One of the first activities we did on the trip is to observe how the locals do rice wrapper in the traditional way. We get to sample those crunchy and tasty rice wrappers after its making activity. Then, we had a Vietnamese lunch in one of the islands which composed of spring rolls with elephant-ear fish meat, vegetable soup, fish and pork dishes. After a taste of Vietnamese cuisine, we then had a Honey Lemon Tea tasting in another island. It was a pleasant to the taste buds – sweet tea with a mild hint of sourness of the lemon.

We then ride on a traditional horse drawn carriage to proceed to our next destination. We stopped on a hall with tables where we were served with local fruit produce in the province like dragon fruit, longan, pineapple, papaya and watermelon. While enjoying those local fruits, we were serenaded by a Vietnamese traditional music sung by the local islanders. Though I did not understand the song, one of the Vietnamese we met during the tour, explained to us that the song is a traditional folk music about Vietnam, love and war. After a lovely serenade by the locals, we headed to cruise the Thoi Son Canal via small rowing boats. The views of the canals were the charming, serene and romantic lining of water coconuts where we cruise through for 15 minutes. This is one of the best experiences of Mekong River tour! At the end of the cruise is a look to the coconut candy making factory were locals of the Ben Tre Province are making it for income. Coconut candies come in different flavors like coffee, durian and pineapple. They are perfect “pasalubong” threats to bring home.

Romantic cruise at Thoi Son Canal.
Local fruits during Mekong River tour.
It’s almost a whole day trip to the province of Ben Tre and Tien Giang for the Mekong River tour. We arrived back at Ho Chi Minh City at six in the evening. Even tired and weary, I continued my Saigon exploration that night. We first stop at Ben Thanh Night Market for shopping bargains of class A bags and t-shirts and for local cuisines like Xoi (sticky rice with flavors) and Vietnam iced coffee. As we walk through the streets around Le Loi, visitors will glad to see the brightly lit skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City like especially the imposing lotus-like tower of BITEXCO. After walking around for sometime, we finally reached Ho Chi Minh’s Statue contained in a manicured garden and the City Hall at the back of it which is all brightly lit at night to clearly see the stunning details of the building’s architecture. This is probably the most beautiful landmark of the city at night!
 
The beautiful landmark of Ho Chi Minh City at night - The brightly illuminated City Hall and the statue of Ho Chi Minh. 
Saigon skyscrapers at night from 23/9 Park viewpoint.
We roamed around for a while but tiredness has succumbed my body, so we return to our accommodation at Kim Huong Hotel which is just at the back of Ben Thanh Market. The city also has many sights to visit from history, cultural, food trip up to shopping bargains so the following morning I continued my exploration of Ho Chi Minh City via a walking tour with my travel companions. We started with Municipal Cultural Park in the morning where there are morning joggers and strollers roaming around and enjoying the sunny morning. The park has huge shady trees ideal for sitting relaxation and unusual sculptures for photo souvenirs. Then, we headed on a historical trip to the War Remnant’s Museum where I had a glimpse of the war history that happened to the country back to the 70’s. I also had an unexplainable goosebumps all the time during my stay at the museum probably because of the unfortunate and emotional pictures of war history of Vietnam. A few blocks of walking and we passed by Reunification Palace, the former residence of President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. If you want to peek inside the former palace, there’s an entrance fee.

Souvenir shot of Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Enjoying the walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City in the morning.
Just a one straight street walk from Reunification Palace is Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, one of the famous downtown landmarks in Ho Chi Minh City. The cathedral is officially known as Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion and it is one of the legacies of French colonization of Vietnam. Just beside the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office which was built by famed architect Gustave Eiffel who is also the architect behind the famous Eiffel Tower of Paris.

A few more walks and we reached Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee or the Ho Chi Minh City Hall and Ho Chi Minh’s Statue at the front of it for a morning viewing this time. Unfortunately the city hall is not open for public or for tourist. Even taking a photo by the building grounds is not allowed but the guards let you have a picture of the building if you are a few meters away from it just like what happened to me. The Ho Chi Minh’s Statue at the front of the city hall was a commemoration and honor to the country’s famed revolutionary political leader and former president of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969).

On the way to the airport - Heels on wheels.
In between the walking trips, visitors can rests to the benches of the huge 23/9 Park. The park is just near the downtown and perfect for morning or afternoon strolls for park lovers. The park is also good for night strolls where local families and friends stay here for evening bonding and people watching. In the morning, the local students and old folks like to lounge here until afternoon. Aside from Ben Thanh Market for last minute shopping before flying out, Saigon Square is also worth to shop in for bargains of bags, clothes, mobile phone accessories and jewelries. We check-out their wide variety of shopping items and got some good bargains for bags and mobile accessories.

Whew! What a walking day tour of Ho Chi Minh City! I think I have explored enough of Saigon that day with my travel buddies. So we prepare our things for our flight back that noon. Good thing, we didn’t miss the flight but I encountered a flight mishap upon check-in and I was the only one who got on the flight. But despite of it, I still had a good time in exploring Vietnam’s timeless charms. The places, the people, the culture, the history, the natural wonders… Timeless charms worth to experience. Vietnam had definitely step out of the hidden charm to a timeless one. It was a worthy return trip to Vietnam after 7 years!


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Vietnam: Timeless Charm is the first of my 4-part series of travel stories about my latest travel to Vietnam that happened last October 29 - November 1, 2013. This my 2nd trip to Vietnam and my return after 7 years. You might be interested in other parts of the series (Stories soon):
+ Mui Ne: Vietnam's timeless charm
+ Mekong River: Vietnam's timeless charm
+ Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam's timeless charm

9 comments:

  1. Nice adventure! I really wanted to travel abroad, and I hope it will happen this year. Thanks! :)

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    1. Pursue that trip... it's a lifetime opportunity!

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  2. I love to hangout in Ben Than Market. the food is good there especially the spring roll!!! wow! Cant wait to go back in Vietnam :)

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  3. This made me more eager to visit Vietnam. Awesome narration Ian. :)

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    1. Thank you. I tried to shorten the story as possible but full of details to enjoy reading it. 'Glad you read it.

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  4. Awesome trip! Inggit ako never pa natuloy Vietnam trip ko kahit twice na kami nakapagbook hayyy

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  5. Hi! Yung 5 hours na travel time papuntang Mui Ne by bus ba? I'll be travelling alone to Vietnam this June so ngayon pa lang research na ako.

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    Replies
    1. Yes by bus. I'll be having a separate post about Mui Ne soon. 'Hope you visit again for it.

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