My latest Southeast Asia adventure started off boarding Japan Air flight from Boston to Tokyo and then continuing on to Ho Chi Minh City. I was fortunate enough to fly business class with a nice comfortable lie flat bed. It really makes a huge difference when flying to Asia. Shortly after takeoff the JAL attendants came around with hot towels, drinks and a smoked salmon appetizer. I opted for the Japanese lunch instead of the Western meal. The Japanese lunch had to be 10-12 different types of food to sample in small individual plates.
After a good long comfortable sleep and a couple of movies we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City formerly known as Saigon around 10pm. I was the first passenger off the plane, and I received a nice surprise as there was no line at customs. Five minutes later I picked up my bag, got a sim card for my phone, changed over some US Dollars to Viet Dong and met my private guide Danh for the transfer to the hotel. I was literally out of the airport within 15 minutes of landing.
The next morning a smiling Danh greeted me in the hotel lobby for the short ride to the Pier. The first leg of today’s private excursion involved a high speed boat ride for about 1 hour. Then a transfer to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are an underground network of tunnels constructed by Vietnamese fighters during their years of conflict with foreign powers (France and USA). It took about 25 years to build this underground city which includes living rooms, kitchens, hospitals, weapon factory, storage facilities and a command center. This network of tunnels was an excellent way for the Vietcong to move around the countryside undetected by the Americans during the Vietnam War. It was home to almost 10,000 people for several years. Visitors to Cu Chi are allowed to crawl through the tunnels. I only went underground for a short time as I was beginning to get a bit claustrophobic.
On the return home we stopped by Notre Dame Cathedral built by the French in the late 1800’s. Dinner in the evening was at the Ngon restaurant, which I would highly suggest for delicious Vietnamese food at very affordable prices. Another day in Saigon included a visit to the War Remnants museum, which shows the atrocities of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point of view. Later in the day we visited Thein Hau, a Taoist temple followed by shopping in the Binh Tay market. Danh reminded me to bargain at least 50% less than the asking price. Binh Tay has many many vendors selling a variety of goods. We shared a nice dinner that evening at a famous Ho Chi Minh hot pot restaurant. A big bowl of flavored broth was placed on top of a gas fire built into our table. Once the broth starts to boil we ordered many ingredients to cook in the broth including a variety of vegetables, egg noodles, prawns, fish, squid, ostrich meat and chicken. Once cooked you scoop them out of the broth, put in your bowl and enjoy.
The next day was a short flight to Danang in the central coastal area of Vietnam. Flying business class instead of economy is a very slight difference in price and I feel it is well worth it. Instead of waiting in a long economy line, business class has no line. Then you are invited into the business class lounge to wait for your flight to board instead of the crowded terminal. While in the lounge, free internet, comfortable chairs, free drinks and a good variety of foods including Pho (soup), spring rolls, sandwiches and sweets. After the one hour flight on arrival in Danang Airport checked bags were just coming off the carousel as we walked into the baggage claim area. I don’t know how they do it so quickly, but it certainly makes travel a lot easier. Of course business class tagged bags were the first ones to come off. Danang has really changed over the years. My first trip to Danang years back you could drive along the coast and see all beach and very few hotels. Today there are many high end beach front hotels and condos.
That evening we went downtown for a special dinner. We went to a large restaurant with only Vietnamese and Chinese patrons. Many big fish tanks lined the floor. Each tank filled with different types of live fish, lobsters, crabs, prawns and eels. We picked out some giant crabs, prawns and some fish. About 25 minutes later the giant steamed prawns and crabs arrived at our table with a variety of dipping sauces. Eating the crabs was like eating a 3 pound lobster with so much meat on them. After we finished the prawns and crab we asked the waiter if he could cancel the order we placed for the whole steamed fish as we could not eat anymore. I don’t remember the exact price, but I think the total bill was around $25-$30 dollars.
After dinner we walked along the Han River and admired the array of colorful lights in the city including the bridges with constantly changing colors. Many families with children and couples were walking along the river to enjoy the unique atmosphere. We relaxed at a coffee shop to enjoy some hot Ginger tea. Vietnam is known for their ginger tea and I always bring the Ginger tea powder back with me to enjoy at home. It is also very soothing to your stomach after a big meal.
The last day in Central Vietnam was spent in Ba Na Hills. The ride was about 45 minutes from our hotel. Ba Na Hills is a mountain top resort founded by French Colonists in 1919. Today it is a major tourist attraction for many visitors. For me the highlight of the trip was getting to the top of Ba Na hills. They have a modern cable car system with the longest nonstop single track in the world. It is over 3.5 miles from ground level to Ba Na Hills near the top of the mountain. The 20 minute ride feature breathtaking scenery including waterfalls, streams and incredible vegetation.
Once reaching the top many attractions and Ba Na Hills resort hotel awaited us. Some of the attractions included a historic French village with wine cellar, Fantasy theme park, wax museum, alpine coaster, spiritual temple, gardens and restaurants. It seemed to have something for everyone. We had a leisurely lunch at one of the restaurants and enjoyed the view. Since I was on a private tour and it started to rain I decided to leave Ba Na Hills 2 hours early and go shopping in downtown Danang instead. This is why I like a private tour; it allows you much more flexibility. If I was on a packaged escorted tour with 35 other guests I would have to follow their schedule. It would soon be time to bid Vietnam farewell until I return again. To be continued….
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