Vietnam Culture and History: Ho Chi Minh City to Bai Xep

Continuing our journey through South East Asia, we’ve made it to the east coast country of Vietnam. Rich in culture and history, join me as we go from the craziness of Ho Chi Minh City to the remote fishing village of Bai Xep with Stray Asia.

Ho Chi Minh City

We caught a bus to take us from Phnom Penh in Cambodia across the border and into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) formally known as Saigon. After a long bus ride and brief customs process we arrived into the city in the pouring rain and had to find our way to our accommodation.

We soon found our way to our wonderfully cheap hostel after battling the streets with seemingly millions of motorcyclists rushing in every direction. A relaxed evening was spent attempting to find a market and instead finding a supermarket and getting confused, so we headed in for an early night before a day of sightseeing and familiarising ourselves with the city the following day.

For our full day in HCMC we wanted to cram in as much as possible. We started off at a contemporary art gallery which was very quirky, the abstract vibe not helped by us somehow going around it backwards.

Next was the Central Post Office and Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which when we came to see them were beautiful historical buildings, and you certainly got a sense of the original French colonisation and influence on the architecture.

From there we made our way to Ho Chi Minh Square which is a grand road leading up to the City Hall and lined with pretty flower beds. A fantastic statue of Ho Chi Minh himself awaits you just before the hall, and this area is particularly popular and known for its large and rather fancy shopping mall.

Art, HCMCPiano artExposed hallway of a Vietnamese art gallery

Contemporary art in HCMC

TheThe "other" Notre Dame in Ho Chi Minh CityInteriors of the wonderful post office of Ho Chi Minh City

Outside & Inside the Central  Post Office, and Outside the Notre Dame Cathedral

We then made our way to the museums, only to find that the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum were closed for a couple of hours at lunch… Always research before you visit! We had been caught out with this before, it’s extremely common to be left with little to do during hours in the late morning or early afternoon as pretty much any place of interested closes up. It’s understandable because of the heat, however the frequency with which this occurs means that at least a couple of hours you’re left stranded and sometimes those couple of hours are stretched out a fair amount more. It’s a bit like a siesta, except for unassuming tourists it leaves us reassessing our daily plan!

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City Hall and Ho Chi Minh himself

Eventually we got into the War Remnants Museum, and it was SO worth it. As you might imagine, the museum focuses on the Vietnamese-American War (called the American War in Vietnam for obvious reasons). This was a topic I knew a little about, but was extremely fuzzy on the details. This museum had all the bare facts, the cold hard truths and some really sad and heart breaking images and facts.

We spent a while taking in as much as possible, but eventually it becomes hard to focus as each room becomes worse than the last. The most devastating part of the museum is seeing the effects of agent orange and how it affected not just the Vietnamese directly, but the American soldiers and the families of those infected with the chemicals and passing it on through generations. It hadn’t occurred to me before now that seeing locals with a physical disability might be due to in some way being affected by the war and agent orange, and wanted so much to help them because of course it’s not fair that they should have to continue suffering and even worse beg on the streets in order to survive.

You come away from the museum enlightened, but also baffled and disappointed with the mistakes of humans at war. Humans are capable of some truly awful actions, and especially in war normal people are warped into something else entirely, the effects of which leave whole countries of people in the middle of political mayhem. The events destroyed so many lives and aspects of this beautiful country, and this museum offered a new perspective while trying to remain impartial.

The cold and stark exterior of the War Remnant Museum, VietnamSkylight

War Remnants Museum

After thoroughly appreciating all that the War Remnant’s Museum has to offer, we realised we were there until closing time! It’s probably just as well, as we were so captured by the stories and wanting to learn more we would have easily spent all our time reading every detail that was available to us.

Leaving so late did mean that we were unable to visit inside the Reunification Palace, but did manage to take a sneaky picture just before the gates closed. At least we can say we’ve been there! Now I can’t really make an accurate comparison between these two museums, but from what I understand the Reunification Palace is more generalised, so if it’s the Vietnam-America War you’re interested in learning about then I would absolutely recommend the War Remnants Museum.

A quick stop off at the enormous Ben Thanh Market was a great end to the day, but we were far too exhausted to really get into the battering spirit. Our time spent in the ex-capital city was frantic and extremely busy, but we were so glad that we were able to really utilise the vast number of activities and attractions on offer because it really was worth it, and gave us a real insight into the beginnings of what Vietnam would be like.

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Peering into the Reunification Palace

Da Lat

Next stop on our never ending bus journey was to Da Lat. The town is situated fairly high above sea level, and so a welcome couple of nights sleeping a much more comfortable temperature were very much needed. This area is known for being the place that most fresh produce comes from, as the more temperate climate provides a thriving condition for fruits and vegetables to grow.

We were welcomed to Alan’s Hostel by the infectiously cheery Happy. And yes, he insists that is his name. This perfectly quaint hostel was so warm and welcoming, and for such a bargain at just a couple of pounds per night we were extremely fortunate to get lovely beds, amazing wifi, clean facilities and a family style dinner and breakfast for free every day. The hostel alone meant I could have stayed longer in Da Lat, it was perfect!

That evening Happy took me and my friends out to get to know the town. After a quick tour he took us to the quirkiest little bar called 100 Roofs Cafe. This unassuming building nestled between various shops and bars seems at best a little bizarre at first sight. Somehow a mix of contemporary art, the Shire, and Wonderland this fascinating find just oozes character. Initially apprehensive, we soon immersed ourselves in the rabbit warren of corners and stairs and nooks to hide away. It was truly like being a kid in a playground again. We dared to climb through the smallest gaps, and as it was pretty dark but this point were startled by the occasional strange sculpture. We finally made it to the top though, and sat back to enjoy a milkshake with a view across the lit up skyline.

Bar 100 tunnels in Da LatBar 100

Creepy but fun: 100 Roofs Cafe

Da Lat has a wide variety of activities on offer, and certainly is a place for backpackers, couples and families travelling alike. The beautiful day we had to enjoy saw us hiring bicycles to roam the town and lakeside, and visit the famous Crazy House. This art work hotel hybrid is so extraordinary, we were captured by its charm and creativity straight away. Similar to 100 Roofs it’s comprised of twists and turns, tunnels and passageways to keep all the visitors entertained for hours.

Once onto the roof you’re treated to a wonderful view across the town, and can from there see the current expansion of the hotel, presumably to cater to popular demands. A quick peek inside the guests rooms shows things aren’t just left at the front door; the rooms have all sorts of surprises and themes, with animal statues, mad mirror placements and snug little alcoves. This place is absolutely a treat for the eyes!

Posing for a photo while exploring the rooftop bridge gardensRooftop viewsExploring theThe creative design of the Crazy House, Da LatIllusory bridge across the rooftop of Crazy House, Da Lat

Selection from Crazy House

After tiring ourselves out from seeing all we could manage we caught up with what the others had been up to. One friend went on a motorbike tour to learn about various farms and aspects of the outer areas of Da Lat, whilst another went for the adventurous abseiling and waterfall canyoning expedition, which is a hugely popular activity here, as is a variety of other adventure sport. It would be great to get involved with something like that, but finances just wouldn’t allow. The day before we had been lucky enough to enjoy a visit to Datanla Waterfall which is accessible by mini rollercoaster, and having seen a fair share of waterfalls, missing this one wouldn’t hurt.

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Da Lat Lake Front

Friends smile as they ride down the rollercoaster in Da LatDatanla Falls

Datanla Waterfall, and getting there by roller coaster!

Bai Xep 

Off once more heading north up Vietnam, we made our way to the coastline to reach Nha Trang, where we stopped off for lunch and wished that we were staying there. It looked so pretty! Had we the time and the visa allowance to spend longer in Vietnam, I would have liked to stop off here, if only for the beautiful beaches! From there we headed to the tiny village of Bai Xep, where we spent a couple of days enjoying the perfect sunny weather before the expected storms of the evenings.

The peaceful waters and adorable fishing baskets made this sleepy spot a perfect rest break from being so active in the past few days. Travelling is so tough sometimes! Although this little peace of paradise was wonderful, it’s not without its flaws. Rubbish is littered along the beach, a reminder that locals are not quite used to the concept of responsible and sustainable waste, a sore effect from the days of introducing the dreaded plastic to the world.

Speaking to other travellers, it would seem that places like Bai Xep are only recently attracting tourists. With only three or so hostels and hotels along the beach, the locals are used to dumping their rubbish bins in the ocean, because that’s what they’ve always done. A big clean up was required to meet the idyllic views of the tourists however, but I certainly see this as a good thing, as it can only do good to clear pollution from the sea!

Vietnamese fishing boatsPanoramic view of the fishing boats lining the beach in Bai Xep

Beautiful Bai Xep

Is Vietnam on your bucket list? Have you got a favourite spot in this beautiful country? Tell me your stories!

Text overlay building in Saigon with statue of Ho Chi Minh
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