Touring Vietnam

Visiting the Charming Village of Hoi An (with a Day Trip to My Son ruins)

From Hanoi, we flew to Da Nang, a city on the central coast of Vietnam and kind of like the “California” of Vietnam – the winter weather here was sunnier and warmer than Hanoi. The setting is quite pretty with green mountains surrounding the city and long stretches of beachfront and resorts along the South China Sea coast, making it somewhat of a vacation destination. Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and a major port.

Da Nang, Vietnam

A snapshot of Da Nang from our taxi.

Our purpose in coming to Da Nang was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, a picturesque village just about 30 minutes south by taxi. Several centuries ago, when Vietnam was just being “discovered” by European explorers, Hoi An was a major port and trading hub for much of Asia.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A view of the village of Hoi An with the river boats.

Japanese Bridge. Hoi An, Vietnam

The 18th century Japanese covered bridge, the symbol of Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A temple in Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A street scene in Hoi An.

Hoi An is now a primary tourist destination—with well-preserved 15th-19th century architecture and lots of shopping and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. Speaking of shopping, good values can be found here – I got a wooden ship (junk) model for $25 and my daughter bought a couple pairs of custom made leather sandals and my son bought a leather wallet, made overnight after they copied the best features of his current wallet!

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My ship model. A bargain for $25.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Some fashionable shoes for sale in Hoi An!

The Thu Bon River is the lifeblood of Hoi An – providing a highway for transportation, access to the sea and sources of food. We took an hour tour along the river – very enjoyable, with views of homes, boats and daily life along the riverfront.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Demonstration of how to cast a net on our Thu Bon River cruise.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Our river boat guide.

Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

View along the Thu Bon River.

The evenings are when Hoi An shows its best, with the decorated lights along the river, and lively sounds coming from the restaurants, shops and bars around the town.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An comes alive at dusk, with the tourists looking for food and drink after the day’s adventures.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A dusk river boat ride.

Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the many tailors in Hoi An.

My Son Ancient Hindu Temples – A Good Day Trip from Hoi An

Another thing we did while in Hoi An was hire a taxi to take us out to the My Son ancient ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which was about 37 kilometers (20 miles) distant. These are ancient Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

View of the ruins of My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the better preserved temples at My Son.

Most of the temples were built out of brick rather than stone. There is a large visitors center and interpretive signs in English at the major temples. The ruins are some distance away from the visitor’s center, and you can either walk or take a cart ride provided by the park.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Another temple at My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

This ruin has been restored; the UN is providing some funds for restoration of these temples.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Detailed carved writing (with some bullet marks) can be seen on this stone.

While this site in its current state does not compare to the ruins found in Siem Reap, it is nonetheless interesting, partly for the history and partly because there was significant fighting here during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, much of the site was destroyed during bombing runs by the U.S. Evidence of this can still be seen in the bomb craters.

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Bomb crater (the mud hole at bottom of photo).

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Some ruins are still covered by dense jungle foliage.

Unexploded land mines are still in the area too, so don’t wander off the main paths.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Going out on patrol in this dense jungle must have been no fun (some ruins can also be seen).

It was rainy the day we visited and I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to slog through the humid, wet jungle for days and weeks on end constantly in fear of being shot or captured. Plan about 4 hours for the round trip from Hoi An, which leaves about 2 hours for the site visit.

Cruising Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Our main reason for visiting Hanoi was to have a launch point for a Ha Long Bay cruise. Ha Long Bay is one of the most scenic locations in Vietnam.

On the morning of our cruise departure, we were picked up at our hotel at 8 am by a transportation service that took us to Ha Long City, a 3.5 hour drive east of Hanoi. We enjoyed seeing the countryside and towns along the way. The transportation van was first-class, very comfortable with amenities such as wifi and water.

Ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, Vietnam

Our comfortable ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi. The van has wifi!

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, with a new ferris wheel being constructed in the background. The goal is to make the town a tourist destination in its own right and not just a transfer point for the cruises.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The crowded port with the launches lined up for the waiting junks.

Upon arrival in Ha Long City, we completed some paperwork at the cruise terminal and then took a small launch to our boat (the ‘Prince Junk’). We had purposely chosen a cruise company that offered a smaller boat (see featured image above). There were just four guest cabins, or room for 8 passengers total. After getting settled in our cabins, we were offered a welcome aboard lunch and an orientation to our cruise itinerary. A young man was our cruise director and in addition to him there were 3-4 other crew, plus the captain.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Dining area on our ship.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our cabin. Since there were only four rooms, all have large windows with a view.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

The large shower and bathroom in our cabin.

Since it was January, the weather was overcast most of the time, with just a few sprinkles and the air temperature was probably in the upper 60’s F – just a bit warmer than Hanoi. Because of the gray skies, it looked colder than it actually felt. The water was quite warm and perhaps was a bit warmer than the air.

Ha Long Cruise, Indochina Junk, Vietnam

Enjoying the Ha Long Bay view from the lounge deck.

In addition to enjoying the passing scenery that first afternoon, we went on a kayaking adventure with our cruise director, one of two kayaking tours during our cruise.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, with the beautiful rock formations and islands everywhere.

Ha Long Bay Kayaking, Vietnam

Another view of our kayaking – our cruise director is in the first kayak. We each had a watertight container for cameras.

On our 2nd day we went on another kayaking adventure and also to an island with a large cave and lovely beach–this was one of the few places where we ran into other cruise ships.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The island with the cave, about halfway up the hill.

Cave, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Inside the island cave, Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A view of Ha Long Bay from the cave island.

Also, on the 2nd day we were treated to a beach-side lunch at a quiet cove on another island where we were the only people on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Setting up our lunch on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A panoramic view of the beach where we had lunch. Our boat can be seen in the distance.

On our third day, we went to a floating fishing village in the morning, where the local women rowed small boats for a tour of the village (the men are fishermen) and then a stop at an oyster pearl farm.

Floating village, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our tour guides for the floating village. These women work very hard and row a long way!

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

A view of part of the floating village.

After our tour of the floating village and pearl farm, we had an early lunch as we cruised back to port for disembarkation at around 12 pm. On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped (along with all other cruise passengers from multiple cruise lines) at Yen Duc village, for a water puppet show, which are unique to north Vietnam. At the show, the hosts provided a wide array of fruits and snacks; the whole event lasts about one hour.

Practical Details

We arranged the cruise several months earlier and were overwhelmed by the choices of cruise companies. We learned that most cruise companies complete the same general itinerary and activities, even though prices for the cruises vary a lot. The junks vary in size from two to 20 cabins.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Example of a larger cruise junk in Ha Long Bay.

We choose a more expensive, small cruise junk option, so that we could have a smaller number of passengers and (likely) increase the quality of the food (the food is well prepared and presented, the cuisine is mainly seafood with a few other meat and chicken dishes too. Bring some snacks/fruits along if you wish to supplement what is provided). Given the immensity of the bay, we were largely out of sight of other cruise vessels. Most cruises are one or two nights. We opted for the two night cruise. Tips are provided directly to the captain (which he distributes to the crew) and cruise director at the end of the cruise, so be sure to bring cash. I don’t recall the specific amounts, but the equivalent of $10-15 per person (guest) should be sufficient.

Huc Bridge, Temple of the Jade Mountain, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Visiting Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hỏa Lò Prison (aka “Hanoi Hilton”)

From Siem Reap, Cambodia we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam for the last leg of our Asian trip. In Vietnam, we went from north to south: Hanoi (plus a cruise in “nearby” Ha Long Bay), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Posts on these other locations will be coming soon. The first thing we noticed in Hanoi was the significantly cooler weather. Coming from Cambodia it was a real shock, Hanoi was in the 60’s F in January vs. 80’s F in Siem Reap.

Hanoi Old Quarter

We spent very little time in Hanoi itself. Our hotel was conveniently located in the Old Quarter, and within walking distance of everything we wanted to do.

Royal Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Our hotel, Royal Palace, in Hanoi. Decent rooms and comfortable.

Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam.

Street scene in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The main tourist sites are in Hanoi Old Quarter, a densely packed section of the city with lots of little shops, temples tucked into hidden corners, and scooters everywhere! Scooters are the transportation vehicle of choice in Hanoi and Vietnam overall.

Hanoi, Vietnam Old Quarter.

Rows of scooters on the side streets of Hanoi.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

This lake and park in the Old Quarter provides a serene contrast to the busy streets nearby. There is a story of a Turtle God associated with this lake that is quite interesting. I won’t retell it here, but look it up on Wikipedia. There is a monument called “Turtle Tower” in the lake commemorating this legend.

Huc Bridge, Temple of the Jade Mountain, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Leading to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (18th century) in Hoàn Kiếm Lake is the pretty Huc (“Welcoming Morning Sunlight”) Bridge.

Temple of the Jade Mountain, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Temple of the Jade Mountain entrance.

Hanoi,Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Old Quarter, Vietnam

A view of the Hanoi skyline from Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

A pretty odd sight in Hanoi is this Neo-Gothic 19th century Christian cathedral. It is the oldest church in Hanoi and was built by the French colonial government. According to Wikipedia, it is the headquarters of Archdiocese of Vietnam which serves 4 million Catholics across the country. From the mid 1950’s until 1990 the cathedral was closed, during this era Christians suffered major persecution. I’m glad the cathedral survived. While it cannot compare to what one finds in Europe, it still has its charm situated as it is in Hanoi.

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

Exterior view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi.

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Interior view of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi.

Hỏa Lò Prison (aka “Hanoi Hilton”)

If you do nothing else in Hanoi, take the time to visit the Hỏa Lò Prison, now a museum. This prison is famous for being the “home” of Senator John McCain, after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. He was held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years, from late 1967 to early 1973 and along with other American pilots, he suffered greatly. All American prisoners were released in 1973.

John McCain, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

A photo of a wounded John McCain after his capture in October 1967.

John McCain, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

John McCain’s flight suit on display at Hỏa Lò Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Typical prisoner supplies.

Rather than focusing on the American prisoner era, the purpose of the museum is to tell the story of the suffering of the Vietnamese people (particularly members of the Communist Party) at the hands of the French during the colonization period beginning in the late 1800’s, which laid the foundation for what became the Vietnam War. The French built the prison in 1896. It was turned into a museum in 1993.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hỏa Lò Prison entrance.

The prison is located just south of the Old Quarter and is quite close to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (discussed above). The prison used to occupy a much larger area, and only a small portion remains, undoubtedly due to the value of real estate in this part of Hanoi. I am glad they persevered at least a portion of this prison for modern day tourists.

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A snapshot of the original Hỏa Lò prison. What remains is just the section facing the street on the lower left.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Vietnamese prisoner depiction, all shackled.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

Prison cell corridor, Hoa Lo Prison.

Prison cell door, Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prison cell door, Hỏa Lò Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Although a bit hard to see, looking into a prison cell at Hỏa Lò Prison, “bed” slab in background.

The pictures of American POW’s in the museum are quite interesting, they make it look like it was a social club!

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The current Vietnamese government attempts to show how well it treated American POW’s by showing them playing basketball and volleyball. Just a day at the gym!

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

Here are some photos of prisoner Christmastime celebrations!

Summary

As we visited Hanoi, my sense was that it’s less progressive and dynamic than Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and that turned out to be the case. I will share more on Ho Chi Minh City in another post.

Please note that Vietnam requires a visa, which is not difficult to obtain. Complete an application on line, print out the paper work, and take this information with you to receive your visa upon arrival at your point of entry.

Our main purpose in visiting Hanoi was to serve as our departure point for a Ha Long Bay cruise–our next Vietnam post!