Vietnamese Contradictions – the contradictory dealing with history and politic related matters

Coming from Europe and remembering how things were back in the socialist days, the way Vietnamese are dealing with history and politics baffles me.

Uncle Ho’s Cabin – and Uncle Ho’s Statue in Ho Chi Minh City.

In Eastern Europe, politics were a serious, serious thing. No cracks about the government, no doubts, and certainly no marketing schemes with the emblems. One wrong remark and you were in big trouble.

This seems not to be the case in – still socialist! – Viet Nam. Although there is pure and utter pride and propaganda everywhere you look – the red flags with the five-pointed star, the super animated young pioneers cheering into some glorious future et cetera et cetera et cetera. On the other hand to our standards, the memories and its symbols are not treated with much respect.

Red flags are flying in bulks.

In Hoi An, which happens to be one of the most touristy places, at one of the many souvenir and knick-knack stores along Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, one of the most touristy streets, they are selling communist propaganda posters from the 70s -which, besides possible dates, do not differ a bit from today’s propaganda that you see everywhere.

I know this phenomenon e. g. from Berlin where it’s the big hilarious thing for tourists to get their picture taken with a communist soldier’s hat – it seems to be something between the forbidden fruit – the demon’s hat on my head, hahaha – and a caricature, because, honestly, still hearing the same old lame slogans makes the whole thing a caricature. So while I get this in Berlin where it’s a mocking look back at their past, I don’t get it in Viet Nam where it’s still everywhere – in a serious sense – and a great part of everyday’s life in the present.

A revolutionary on sale: Ho Chi Minh in all stages and ages.
But as a matter of fact, the Cuban revolution with Che Guevara at their side had definitely the hotter symbol.

So my question is: What’s the difference between the ‚old’ propaganda posters and the recent ones? Why are the old ones knick-knack and the new ones a serious message to the people?
Because it’s not the motives and even not the style and graphic. And although I cannot really judge whether the wording changed, I strongly doubt it (because e. g. in Cuba I was able to judge it, and there the only difference is that now they add Chavez to Che and Fidel).

Propaganda in Baracoa, Cuba
Propaganda in Cuba – it’s rather the message than the design (whereby the whole thing looks like they didn’t put much heart in it)

Communists tend to be quite conservative when it comes to marketing and PR.
To me, selling the ideology at a souvenir store is mocking – because, come on, nobody will buy a poster like this thinking „Oh, young pioneers should follow the lead of Ho Chi Minh – that’s an interesting thought, I think I want to hang this next to the TV set to not forget about it.“ They will buy it because they find it hysterical.

So obviously it is ok to sell out the great communist idea to create a better world and ‘new humans’ for a souvenir to some tourists – in a country where people are brainwashed every day by the very same ideology and designs?!

Another good example is the famous Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietnamese partisans hid from the US troops.

You can visit them on a day trip – that also includes a visit to the Cao Dai temple, which actually makes sense since the Cao Dai fought together with i. a. the communists and the buddhists against the French-oriented catholic oppressors.

So anyway, once you get to the site, they first make you watch a film that should be called “Viet Nam’s way to socialism for total morons”. It shows in an extremely simplified thus slightly tendentious way how great life in Viet Nam used to be: Women in traditional Ao Dais are sashaying over fields, mildly humming cheesy tunes, hardworking farmers happily working their rice paddies – it was pure harmony.

All of a sudden – and to emphasize the shock, the film at this moment turns darker – American villains came and dropped bombs and erased villages and razed the country to the ground; sadly, that’s the only part in the film that’s true.
But GI Joe didn’t reckon the brave Vietnamese’s – who of course were all devoted communists – resistance.

Not only the film itself, also the content is in very, very, veeery black and white.

Yes, it was bad that there was colonialism, yes, it was bad that the US got involved in the war, but no, Viet Nam and its people were not one big bundle of harmony. There were also many Vietnamese people who were not desperately longing for a communist government. It was not only an uprising, it was also a civil war, after all.

Not everyone was longing for a communist government; yet the red flag is waving everywhere – like here over the picturesque Halong Bay.

Anyway, I knew I was at a memorial site, so of course, they tried to feed me their broth. What confused me, was the entertaining Disney World-ish side to it: Getting down into the earth holes, there were puppets involved in all sort of crafts and chores – and once everybody entered the hole, the guide flipped the switch and the puppets got busy.
Let me tell you, the mechanism was not exactly the latest state of the art. Not only the bad technics ridiculed the whole scenario.

Then there was a couple of ruthless Viet Cong puppets in their fighting apparel to take your picture with.
So that’s what became of the Viet Cong now? Just another Minnie Mouse and Goofy at Disney World?

To top it off, at the gift store, they are selling the Viet Cong scarf and other goodies. I mean it’s clear that people will only buy it for fun – for mocking, not because they want to be ready as it’s time to join the Vietnamese army.

So first they are torturing the visitors with this tacky, bold propaganda and half an hour later you can mock them?! Come on, guys!

Dummies at Cu Chi tunnels
Viet Cong dummies at your disposal.

But there was another thing that for me personally took the cake: While walking along the trail and watching the dummies – I’m talking about the puppets here – doing their work and climbing into the narrow tunnels – I made like twenty steps and got out at the first possible exit; they wouldn’t have won the war with me at their side, that’s for sure – there was a constant gun fire in the background. Naiv me, I thought it was some sound effect to make the visit more realistic and dramatic.

Nope, turns out, there is a shooting ranch right next to the Cu Chi tunnel memorial!
Sorry, but placing a shooting ranch – yes, real guns, real bullets – next to a war memorial leaves me jaw-dropped.

Have you been to Viet Nam? How did you perceive the presence of religion, politics, and history?
Share your experience in the comment section below.

There were more incidents that left me a bit irritated – and I wrote about them here:

Vietnamese Contradictions – the contradictory treatment of foreign tourists Part I

Vietnamese Contradictions – the contradictory treatment of foreign tourists Part II

To get the complete travel info on Viet Nam just click here.

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VIET NAM – Complete Travel Guide

(Updated October 2018)

Sadly, sometimes I cannot cherish a place enough – because there are some negative points that have a too strong impact or I’m not ready for the place or I simply need something different the moment I’m there. And it’s only afterward that I reminisce and realize how cool it actually was.
Viet Nam is a place like this.

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Before I went there, I’ve heard from so many people how great it was and that it was even much nicer than Thailand, so I really looked forward going there, yet I was quite disappointed. Maybe my expectations were so high because of all the tales.

Anyway, now that I think back, it is quite cool. It’s probably due to its political past that it is so very different from the other South East Asian countries, and maybe that’s confusing at first, but there are so many good things there, it’s absolutely worth it and I think, I’ll be back somewhen soon.

Everybody has heard that there was a Vietnam War – sadly mainly because the US got involved.
But the conflict did not start with the intrusion of the US troops.

I am no historian, but I’d like to give you a brief historic précis. This is by no means a detailed, pinpoint documentation of Viet Nam’s history – it’s a strongly simplified overview. I just quote the ‘big points’, which is hard enough since there were so many twists and turns and much was connected to events far away. Mind you, even the exact date of the beginning of war cannot be determined since it depends on which conflict or event you consider (and it’s not 196   – that’s when the US got involved, but that’s not when the war in Viet Nam started). For further, deeper insight, please consult relevant literature.

The first Vietnamese state was established in 968. At that time the region was historically and culturally built like every other Asian and Chinese culture.
The first Europeans came about 1500 – and, like in Central and South America – they were Catholic missionaries, mainly Jesuits and Franciscans. And the story went as nicely as in Central and South America or any other region where these good people thought they had to implement their idea of civilization.

Sadly, they found supporters who profited from their system everywhere, in Viet Nam, too.
Towards the end of the 18th-century emperor Gia Long asked the French for stronger support, and once there, they extended their influence on Cambodia, too. Under the French protection, the country developed just like Latin American countries under the Spanish – there were few land barons and a vast majority of poor people.

A lesson that every oppressor has to learn eventually: You can exploit people only so long.

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Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in at one time Buddhist Viet Nam.
In Viet Nam, the first uprisings began around 1900. At that time also Vietnamese students came back from Europe where they had experienced national movements and heard of this new thing – communism.

One of them was Ho Chi Minh who came back to Viet Nam in 1941 and founded the Viet Minh, a group consisting of i. a. freedom fighters and communists. By that time – during WWII – Viet Nam was, like many Asian countries, attacked by Japan, an ally of Nazi-Germany and its collaborator Vichy France.
And at this point, history added an afterwit: Fighting the fascist forces and their allies, the – nota bene – United States of America supported the communist Viet Minh lead by Ho Chi Minh! (And since this worked out so well, they repeatedly supported fighting groups who eventually turned around and – literally – beat them with their own weapons).

In 1945, Viet Nam became the first independent state of South East Asia – founded according to the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.

By that time the country got divided into the China-oriented North and the Catholic South, forced by the French. That they were tending North, finally lead to the Indochina war that the Vietnamese guerilla won in 1954.

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Commemorating tiles on Quan Thanh in Hanoi.

Following the Geneva conference in 1954, the Viet Minh settled in the North of today’s Viet Nam behind the 17th degree of latitude. The South was ruled emperor Bảo Đại under Western influence. All of Indochina, Laos, and Cambodia received their state independence.
For July 1956, free elections were agreed throughout Vietnam, monitored by representatives of the NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and India. But Bảo Đại’s successor, Ngô Đình Diệm, finally denied these elections, and the conflicts between North and South Vietnam ultimately resulted in the second Indochina, better known as the Vietnam War.

Picture from the Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi
A picture at the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi: Everybody has his own perspective of the war. I’m not sure whether the souvenirs made the American war prisoners’ memories much nicer…

In fear of the strengthening of communism in the region, in 1964 the USA again entered the conflict, this time against Ho Chi Minh. In 1973 the US withdrew its troops, but supported the South Vietnamese by supplying them with weapons.

Ho Chi Minh pictures
Take your pick: Ho Chi Minh in all ages and stages
 (at a gift shop next to the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi) 

The war officially ended in 1975, and Viet Nam was reunited in 1976.

I think it’s important to look at the ‘big picture’, to have an idea what was going on earlier, and that it was not that the ‘red hordes’ took over willy-nilly, but that they intended to free the country from its colonialists and oppressors. Their idea was to end despotism, injustice, and exploitation.
This was often the underlying idea – but sadly it often continued and ended in another kind of despotism and injustice.

However, my personal observation and opinion are that in ‘developing countries’ the socialist idea and politics did good – free education, free healthcare, equal rights for women etc. But of course on a long-term the result is not convincing, no matter how many cheesy slogans they write on the walls.

For us Europeans having lived with the iron curtain for decades and having witnessed how complicated it was to let bygones be bygones resp. to cope with the past, it’s amazing how the people of Vietnam get over the past, embraces the changes.

Communist propaganda and a Buddhist Temple
Obviously, there is enough space for different kinds of faith.

Actually, this difference in dealing with Socialism in comparison with European countries isn’t that new. The Vietnamese way seems to be less doctrinal and obstinate. Already the fact that Buddhist monks joined the Socialist fight against Colonial France and later the American troops shows the different approach. In Europe, every form of religion was banned by the Socialist government (according to Marx’ saying “Religion is the opium of the people”). Well, in the Far East they obviously find their own way to deal with opium.

It’s baffling to see the traditional, naive, right in your face propaganda at every corner – including the inevitable red flags, pentagrams and hammer and sickle. And right next to it people living their hyper-capitalistic reality selling you everything.

Colonial building, communist propaganda and a skyscraper in HCMC
A family picture of Viet Nam’s different eras: Colonialism, Communism, and Capitalism.

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam has a population of more than 90 million people living on a  329.560 sq km (about 127,000 sq miles) terrain. While the South and North are low, flat deltas, the central highlands and the far North towards China are hilly or even mountainous. While the South is tropically hot and humid, the North is noticeably cool and rainy. In Viet Nam you pay with Dong (VND) – that you can convert e. g. on XE.

This is just the general introduction to the country. In the following nine chapters (links below) you’ll get extended information on each place I’ve been.

This is the route I’ve travelled….

…and these are the places I’ve visited – with extended information to each of them:

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Vietnamese Contradictions – the contradictory treatment of foreign tourists Part II

I’ve told you the story about the tour guide in HCMC who accused me being a communist from Dresden because I call Ho Chi Minh City by its given name.

Well, in Hoi An I heard a very different story:
I went with a small group to the ruins of My Son, guided by a very sweet young tour guide. Very fit, very smart kid, great command of English.
Since private Ryan and his fellow occupiers thought it a good idea to also destroy part of the ancient temples we were looking at, the topic of the war came up and the smart kid told us about his father who fought in the war. Not only did that man fight with the Viet Nam National Liberation Front (also known as Viet Cong), he also lost his six (six!) brothers in the war.
So from then on he has hated Americans. All Americans.
But since he cannot distinguish Americans from other Caucasians, he simply hates white people. All white people.

I’m sorry for the guide’s father who lost six brothers and still couldn’t prevent cultural occupation: First American fastfood chains are here to infest Viet Nam. 

„If he knew what I’m doing for a living, that I am working with foreign tourists, he would kill me“, laughed the smart kid. „He knows that I’m a tour guide, but he believes I’m working exclusively with Vietnamese people.“

Once he took some Dutch friends to his fathers house. The father obviously freaked out and swore at them. The smart kid allowed to get a great deal of what the man said lost in translation – and modified the rest to „My father welcomes you to Viet Nam; and now we have to go“.
I told you he’s a smart kid.

Monument in the Hàng Đậu flower garden honoring the Vietnamese freedom fighters.

Yes, these stories are funny. But I ask myself how people who feel that strongly about this topic – and I presume that these two are not Viet Nam’s most extremist but probably represent the average population – manage to live side by side without going for each other’s throats. Is it the aftermath of the war trauma? Is it the Buddhism? Do these people live and hate each other side by side as neighbors, or does the old division between the North and the South still exist so that they can hate each other from far?
I’m really curious.

To get the complete travel info on Viet Nam just click here. There you also find a precis on Viet Nam’s recent history.

Vietnamese Contradictions – the contradictory treatment of foreign tourists Part I

Besides the propaganda everywhere I had the feeling that every day life is quite unaffected by the ideology, the past wars and the differences between people.
No hard feelings towards American tourists. When I asked about the attitude towards the once colonialist French, the guy, and it was no dummy at all, didn’t even get the question. So forgiveness – or forgetting – there, too.

mural shooting of a Viet Cong
“Communist from Dresden” or not – what I certainly do no like, is people shooting others holding the gun about five inches from their head. This mural depicts one of the three synonyms of war cruelty: There is the dying soldier by Frank Capa, there is Nick Ut’s picture of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked from napalm, and there is this picture of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting Viet Cong member Nguyễn Văn Lém in the temple, photographed by Eddie Adams.  

Today they are even some branches of American chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and Co.; thank God – or whoever is responsible in this part of planet earth – only very few of them and mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and some highly touristy spots like Nha Trang. Because it’s absurd to bring fast food to the cradle of street food and a coffee chain to the second largest coffee exporting country.
Funny: You would think now that the country tolerates this beacon of imperialist capitalism, they can slowly take down the red flags and save a lot of money fort the extensive propaganda, but now, they exist side by side.

And I had to learn it the hard way that not everybody is that chilled when it comes to political ideas and the past.

It was on my two day trip to the Mekong Delta that I took with a bunch of tourists guided by a rather unpleasant Vietnamese guide. On the bus he asked who calls HCMC Ho Chi Minh City and who calls it Saigon. I’m not even sure whether the other people understood the ulterior motives of this question, however, I raised my hand to Ho Chi Minh City – it’s the present official name, after all. „Are you communist?“ the guy barked at me over the microphone. I’m sure that besides one Vietnamese lady who had migrated to the US many years ago and was for the first time back to her native country nobody really got what was going on and why.
„I’m not answering that question“, I answered the question.
„Do you like communism, or do you like freedom?“ the tourist guide insisted – over the microphone in front of everybody.
Golly, I wish the answer was a teeny bit as easy as the question.
And in that very moment I wished the tourist guide was there to make my vacation pleasant instead of making me feel uncomfortable – for calling this damn city by ist damn correct, official name.
„Are you from the GDR? Are you from Dresden“ I didn’t even pay attention to him anymore.

That much for how relaxed things seem to be – you cannot even call a city by its name without being categorized.

What surprises me, though, is that someone who is working as an official guide with tourists can be that openly anti-communist…in a communist country plastered with propaganda.

To get the complete travel info on Viet Nam just click here. There you also find a precis on Viet Nam’s recent history.

Complete Guide to HO CHI MINH CITY

(Updated October 2018)

Most travellers arrive at Hồ Chí Minh City (in Vietnamese ‘Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh’ – so I guess thành phố means ‘city’ in Vietnamese) in the Southern, tropical part of Viet Nam. This mega city has about 8.5 million inhabitants – and 7.4 million motorbikes – and is Viet Nam’s largest city and its commercial and industrial center.

Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City
Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City.

To get from the airport into the city center is very convenient – you can even take a public bus that goes to the Quách Thị Trang square. But this is rather for the flight back or for possible domestic flights since after the long flight to Viet Nam, you certainly do want to take a cab. To save you the hassle and bargaining, there is a stand at the airport where you pay your trip in advance (the fare depends on the section of town you are going to) so you have to hand the driver only a voucher.

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Morning traffic and two street vendors on Trương Định road.

Since most of the city’s points of interest are located in the neighborhood of the old colonial center, the city could be easily walkable. Why the subjunctive? Because there is the above-mentioned number of motorbikes – and now add a significant number of cars and buses and other vehicles driving on streets with very, very few traffic signals (in Hồ Chí Minh City they at least have some traffic lights, you’ll come to parts where they probably haven’t even heard of such thing) which makes every crossing a big adventure and survival training. And over the day all these vehicles belch exhaust gases so from the early afternoon you feel like breathing air without any oxygen; it’s really bad.

Anyway, to be positive, let’s start the day at a park, namely the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park – which is rather a small forest. It’s cool and nice in the shade of the trees so that you can see many – surprisingly old – folks doing their fitness program like walking and jogging and some sort of Thai Chi where they are waving huge hand fans. There are playgrounds for kids, picnic areas and even two Buddhist temples in the park, and on the Westside, on Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, you’ll find many coffee shops. A fresh start of a long day.

Young pioneers visiting the park
Young pioneers on a field trip to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park

I’m just telling you that there is a Reunification Palace to be seen, I do not exactly recommend to go there because it’s the ugliest concrete building you can imagine – very 70s socialist architecture.

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Some delegation’s souvenir picture in front of Ho Chi Minh City’s ugliest building, the Reunification Palace.

So coming down from the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park turn left and you’ll reach the famous – and enormous – Ben-Thanh-Market which is a tourist market. I don’t say it’s bad, but it’s touristy so beware of fantasy-prices. Actually, I’ve found a good way of estimating a real price: Go to the governmental section towards Phan Bội Châu on the East side. They have fixed prices – no bargaining. So this gives you an idea of how much you should pay for things; if you don’t want to bargain at all, do your shopping here.

As you might know by now, I love art and I go to museums and galleries, so I recommend the Museum of Fine Arts South of Ben-Thanh-Market – and most of all South of  Quách Thị Trang square (whereby it’s not a square but a traffic circle which makes crossing even more interesting), one of the worst places to cross – it’s a circle of never-ending traffic.

How to survive crossing streets in Viet Nam

It’s absolutely terrifying – even for me, and I do walk criss-cross allover the world. But don’t even think about waiting for a good moment to cross, this good moment will never come, so right now is as good as any. Just start walking. Yes, I know that there are hundreds of motorcycles and cars coming, but you start walking. Walk in an even, moderate tempo, don’t run and don’t stop, just walk. This way the drivers can estimate your pace and adapt; if you run or stop, you’ll confuse them. Walk a little angular towards the traffic as if you walk into the traffic (but please do not actually do so!). While observing the traffic, keep walking until you reach the other side of the street. This is how you’ll have to do it for the time being in Viet Nam, so good luck.

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I’d sacrifice my life for art – in Ho Chi Minh City almost literally.

So after you crossed Công viên Quách Thị Trang keep walking one block South to the Museum. In a palatial neoclassicist villa are displayed mainly paintings from different eras as well as statues from the Cham and Funan epoch. The post-war, heavily ideological art with its überclear message deems at bit…bizarre.

Sculpture at the Museum of fine arts in HCMC
A brave farmer (who according to the size of his chest does a lot of work out) with his buffalos.

Quách Phong: Following the communist party's guidance
Quách Phong: “Following the communist party’s guidance” – interestingly a painting from 1938

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Art  
97 Phó Đức Chính
Nguyễn Thái Bình
Quận 1
Hồ Chí Minh City
Phone: + 84 – 90 – 483 00 90 

Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. 

After this highly socialist impact, you might want to discover HCMC’s capitalist side!? The best way to get to the Dong Khoi, a boulevard that used to be already during the colonial era a posh strolling promenade, you better walk along Huỳnh Thúc Kháng. Don’t get fooled by the proximity to the river and refrain from walking down Ton Duc Thang. That way is longer and not as idyllic as you might expect. 

Before you get to Dong Khoi, you might want to hang out a bit on Nguyen Hue, a pedestrian area facing Hồ Chí Minh’s memorial, standing between the legendary Hotel Rex where the American 5 o’ clock conferences during the war took place, and the old town hall that today houses the national committee. 

Ho Chi MInh
Hồ Chí Minh – “Uncle Hồ” – greeting its people and a couple of tourists from his pedestal in front of the old townhall.

This might be a good moment to clear up the confusion about the city’s name: 

Some people call it Hồ Chí Minh City, some people call it Saigon. Some people do it randomly, some do it on purpose. The fact is that the city used to be called Saigon before and was named after the communist party’s leader Hồ Chí Minh after the war. This is very common in these circles: St. Petersburg was named Leningrad after the Soviet revolution (and back to St. Petersburg in 1991). Chemnitz in Eastern Germany was named Karl-Marx-Stadt after WWII (and back to Chemnitz in 1990). So some people, who are not happy with the result of the war, keep calling it Saigon to underline their disapprobation. Some call it Saigon because it’s much shorter. 
I call it Hồ Chí Minh City because it’s the city’s official name.

Next to all the red flags, to the faithful pioneers, to the propaganda and dogma, it seems preposterous to walk along stores such as Luis Vuitton, Prada & Co. Just go and see for yourself. It’s amazing how all this seems to go together nicely.

While there are these high-class stores, there are agreeably few chain restaurants and shops like McDonalds, Starbucks, or Seven Eleven. I appreciated that a lot. Who needs American fast food in the cradle of street food culture?! Who wants Starbucks in world’s seconds largest coffee exporting country?! Viet Nam has its own chains of coffee and coffee products, and while “White Coffee” is just average (and tends to be very sweet), “Trung Nguyên Coffee” is really outstanding. While you are on Dong Khoi – there is one at No. 80.

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Lovely coffee break at Trung Nguyên Coffee on Dong Khoi; while in Vienna you get a glass of water with your coffee, in Viet Nam they serve it with a glass of iced green tea.
Foto Shoot in front of Notre Dame at HCMC
Seeing this couple, I still believed to witness a wedding. After a while I found out,
that the many ‘weddings’ I saw everywhere were simply commercial photo shootings.

Strolling Dong Khoi up North leads you back to colonial times: There is the Theater and the Hotel Continental, then comes the French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral, that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic, this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.

Finally, there is the neo-classicist Hotel des Postes, that still is a post office.

Hotel de Postes HCMC
On of HCMC’s colonial icons: The Hotel des Postes – a still operating post office.

There are also some Buddhist temples in HCMC but nothing exciting compared to Thailand or even Hanoi. It shows that the South was (was or is?)  pro-colonial Catholic.

A museum worth seeing is the Southern Vietnam Women Museum that on the first floor focuses on the traditional life and on the second floor on the women’s role during the war which was a very active and important one. Let me tell you, Vietnamese women are tough – then and now.

Wallpainting Southern Women's Museum
An excerpt from a wall painting depicting the heroic role of women during the war; and on the upper left the
inevitable Hồ Chí Minh.

Southern Vietnam Women Museum
202 Võ Thị Sáu, phường 7
Quận 3
Hồ Chí Minh
Phone: + 84 – 28 – 39 32 55 19

The Museum is open daily from 7.30 a. m. to 11.30 a. m. and from 1.30 p. m. to 5 p. m.

Cho Lon

Hồ Chí Minh City is also a great gateway for interesting day trips. The first is just around the corner and nowadays part of HCMC: The Chinese borough of Cho Lon. Easily accessible by bus No. 1 from Ben-Thanh-Market.

For obvious reason, the market in Cho Lon is much less touristy than the Ben-Thanh-Market and therefore has more groceries than knick-knack.

On the way back I recommend to walk along Nguyen Trai – it’s a residential street which is already interesting, but in addition on the Northern side of the street you’ll find three beautiful Buddhist temples: Ha Chuong Hoi Quan on No. 802, Hội quán Nghĩa An on No. 676, which I’ve found the nicest for its preciously decorated ceramic gate, and Ba Thien Hau Temple on No. 710.

Roof of a Temple in Cho Lon HCMC
Incredibly artistic decorated roofs in the Chinese borough of HCMC.

Since the bus back to the city center goes along this street, you can just hop on as soon as you’re ready temple watching.

Market in Cho Lon HCMC
Bình Tây Market in HCMC’s Chinatown Chợ Lớn – a vast variety, but Chợ Thái Bình in the city center had the better prices.

By the way, my favorite market in HCMC is neither of the two big ones already mentioned, but a small place at the Western end of the central park (the central park is North of the backpacker district) poetically called Pacific Market Morning (Chợ Thái Bình).
It’s an unimpressive little place but I bought first-rate coffee there at an unbeatable price (after I dared to wake the vendor sleeping behind the counter).

Across the street at 185 D Cong Quynh is the unremarkable entrance to a home for blind people where you can also get an excellent massage at a likewise excellent price.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Well, the famous Cu Chi tunnels – they have to be visited. 

This was one of the things that confused me in Viet Nam – how they deal with the past especially since this past still reaches into the present and affects people’s lives, i. e. they fought a war, they won the war, they live in a socialist system – but they find so many different ways dealing with it.

The first one is obvious and not unusual: pure and utter pride and propaganda.
This is what you get as soon as you reach the site: You have to watch a film that should be called “Viet Nam’s way to socialism for dummies”. It shows in an extremely simplified fashion how happy Vietnamese people were – women in Ao Dais are sashaying over fields, mildly humming cheesy tunes, everything was peaches and cream. Then – tadadadaaa – the American villains came and messed up this harmony. But they didn’t reckon the brave Vietnamese’ – who of course were all devoted communists – resistance….you know the rest of the story. The whole film seems to be filmed in black and white and in a really bad quality to give it a historic touch.

Yes, yes get to see the tunnels and they explain you the traps that the Viet Cong, who were ordinary troops as well as a guerrilla army,  put up in the jungle and the rice paddies.

While Americans had all these high tech mass destruction weapons, the Vietnamese relied on all these quite medieval traps where they covered holes with twigs and leaves and when the enemy fell in the trap, he got impaled on some pointy bamboo sticks.

Then there were trapdoors built after the iron maiden model – all sorts of sharp, spiky stuff.

While our tired and sluggish guide explained all these torments to us, there was a constant gunfire in the background. I thought it was some sound effect to make the visit more realistic and dramatic, but no way, turns out there is a shooting ranch right next to the Cu Chi tunnel memorial.

Now if that’s not empathic and tasteful than I don’t know what is.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Some sort of war Disney Land: Want a souvenir picture with Viet Cong fighters?

When taking an organized tour from HCMC to Cu Chi, usually there is another visit included: They take you to the Cao Dai Temple, and that’s really very nice. While the devotees are all dressed in white, the temple and the premises are very colorful, and so is the faith: Caodaists believe that all religions are ultimately the same and mix the individual aspects willy-nilly.

Cao Dai Temple
 Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius are honored at the Cao Dai Temple; and once they are on it, they also throw in Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar.

Friendly Caodaists before service.
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Complete Guide to MUI NE

Mui Ne – now what a disappointment that was! After two days without oxygen I was so much looking forward to a remote place, to a hippie village along a deserted, white beach…well, Mui Ne is nothing like that.

The sight of the fish market right on the beach in the wee hours makes up for any flaw Mui Ne might have.

I took the bus from HCMC – the hotel had arranged the trip for me and screwed me over big time, I paid like triple of the regular fare.
Plus I didn’t know Vietnamese buses, so I’d thought that an upper seat is better. Getting on the bus, I stood corrected: In most overland buses in Viet Nam you are basically climbing on a sort of stretcher with your legs in a metal box.
I assume if you happen to have Vietnamese legs, it’s quite comfortable. I assume since I don’t know – I do not have Vietnamese legs.
Actually, it’s not so bad, but it’s definitely more comfortable and less shaky to sit in one of the lower seats.  Anyway, as we reached Mui Ne, there was no bus station so the driver just kicked me out somewhere along the main street.
Somehow I tend to get kicked out by bus drivers.

Bus to Mui Ne
HCMC to Mui Ne – travelling in style.

Mui Ne is a beach destination, but Mui Ne didn’t decide yet on what kind of beach destination it wants to be. I expected it to be a bit hippie-ish, with basic guest houses, street food, all that jazz. But for that, there are far too many big, more expensive hotels of this mass tourist all-inclusive style, and they are occupying the nicer beach parts. Some Russian couple, some Russian families – this is Mui Ne’s tourist crowd and it comes with signs and menus in Cyrillic.

Breakfast vendors on the red dunes.

Besides the mediocre beach, Mui Ne is ‘famous’ for its dunes – the yellow dunes and the red dunes, and the big thing is to see them at sunrise. If you don’t want to pay a price that’s an issue from the organizer’s imagination, you have to walk around and check and compare and bargain.

Seeing the dunes at sunrise means rising before the sun – they picked me up at 4 a. m. and we drove in a group of five or six first to the dunes where already many other groups of five or six were marching up the sand. It baffles me how people can be so cheery and noisy at 4:30 a. m.

Dunes Mui Ne
Good day, sunshine! Sunrise over the yellow dunes of Mui Ne.

While the dunes – probably also due to the helter-skelter from the other early risers – didn’t impress me that much, the view of the fishermen coming in from the sea at Mui Ne left me speechless: The atmosphere of the bustle on the wide stretch of tideland, women under their conic hats haggling over fish prices, men carrying huge baskets of mussels and conchs, hundreds of boats, this perfect scenario at the break of day was just too beautiful and made the whole trip to otherwise dull Mui Ne worth it.

Fishermen in Mui Ne
I take that one. Fish shopping on a Sunday morning.

In the evening I had the chance to sample some of the morning’s catch. At the Seahorse Bistro you choose which fish and shellfish you want on your barbecue and they grill it before your eyes in a very pleasant garden setting. Wonderful seafood dinner at a reasonable price.

To continue to Da Lat – the cool, supposedly ‘French’ town in the fertile hills of the Southern part of the central uplands – I had to do some of the tiresome research regarding prices. Finally, my landlady offered to arrange a bus at an acceptable price.

Learn in the next chapter how this worked out for me.

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Complete Guide to HUE

(Updated October 2018)

More great building complexes, more rich Asian history: Viet Nam’s former capital Hue had just enough history and majesty to keep up with beautiful Hoi An.

Gate at Citadel in Hue
Exit the citadel through the “Gate of Humanity”. Beautiful name for a beautiful gate.

The main attraction is the Đại Nội Citadel that used to be the emperors’ seat till 1945. Surrounded by thick stone walls and a moat, it protected the emperor against…his enemies, I presume.

To get from Hoi An to Hue I booked a shuttle that included a couple of stops. Actually only two of them were really worth it – the ‘Marble Mountain’, which is a group of five mountains from marble and limestone whose names represent the five elements.

Row of pagodas on the Marble Mountain.

It is a spiritual pilgrimage site, counting with several Buddhist pagodas and caves. The other impressive place was the Bach Ma National Park way up high in the mountains, where within minutes we got wrapped in clouds – a beautiful and mystic experience.

Bach Ma National Park
There was a natural veil laying over us.

The best thing about having chosen this option was that there were only two of us in the car – Elin from Estonia and me. Luckily we clicked immediately and didn’t spend only the (day-) trip to Hue together, but did the sightseeing tour on the following day together, too.

The weather wasn’t still great – unfortunately you can see that on my pictures – but Elin and I were lucky to have found an agency that sold us a day trip for an incredible price (I think we paid about 7 or 8 $ for the whole trip including a (not so good) lunch – but of course the entrance fees were not included).

The bus tour took us to the Citadel housing the ancient imperial city with large courtyards surrounded by beautifully decorated pavilions, where we got an idea how powerful the emperors must have been – until they made themselves the French occupants’ puppets.

The replica of the Royal Theatre.

While this feudalistic heritage was rather dismissed during the strict communist era, since 1993 the most important complexes made it to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Citadel of Hue
We had our own Royal Theatre: Not only did Elin dress in some emperor’s robes, she also got herself a royal sidekick. Oh, with this much fun, who cares about the historical structures?!

Selfie with tourist
This young visitor seems to be far more attractive than the old stones of the ancient palace.
Vietnamese love to take pictures of and with foreigners.

Not far from the Citadel is the posh neighborhood Kim Long, famous for its beautiful garden houses constructed for the Concubines, Mandarins, and Statesmen.

Thien Mu Pagoda
Thien Mu Pagoda

Before finally going to the famous kings’ tombs we made a short stop at the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Northern banks of the Perfume River. With its seven storeys high Phước Duyên tower it’s Viet Nam’s highest pagoda.

The tombs

The “Forbidden City”, modeled on the one in Peking, was the Nguyen. Besides this site, the main reason to visit the city of Hue is the ancient royal tombs. Hue used to be the Vietnamese capital from 1802 till 1945, so the emperor’s lived – and died – here.

Although there are seven known royal tombs, only three are significantly more visited since they are in better condition and closer to the city: – these are the tombs of Lang Minh Mang, Lang Tu Duc, and Lang Khai Dinh. If you are on a tour and do visit not only the Citadel but also the three tombs, you might want to by a combined ticket for about VND 360,000 (approx. US$ 16); for obvious reason – the whole tour cost us less than this – the entrance was not included in our trip, but we were able to buy the ticket from our guide.

The oldest tomb is Lang Minh Mang, who was the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 1820 until 1840. The site was constructed from 1841 to 1843, hence after the emperor’s death. He was laid to rest after the tomb’s completion in 1843.

Lang Minh Mang
Lang Minh Mang, the burial site of the second Nguyen emperor – located closest to the city of Hue.

Long Tu Duc was built from 1864 to 1867 and is the only site where the emperor actually moved his household to, building a Forbidden City of his own. Tu Duc lived from 1848 to 1883 and reigned the longest.

The newest, very much influenced by French fashion, is Long Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh’s tomb. Built from 1920 to 1931 in an eclectic style mix mainly of concrete and preceded by a wrought-iron triple gate, this tomb is definitely constructed in the nicest spot, overlooking the perfume river and the lush rolling hills. The most beautiful detail are the man-high statues of animals and men on the first level.

Lang Khai Dinh
Lang Khai Dinh

I cannot say for sure where it was, but at one of the tombs was a huge group of teenage girls, completely oblivious to the ruins, all hyper because of a young man in a traditional Vietnamese outfit.

While the teenage crowd was standing in line for selfies, an obviously professional photographer was patiently waiting for his turn. Eventually, the young man and his entourage including the photographer left leaving a screaming teenage crowd behind.

The funny thing is, that if there haven’t been the hyper teenagers, I would have never known that this young man is obviously a big shot megastar in Viet Nam. We Europeans and North Americans believe to rule the world not only economically, but also culturally, completely ignoring the fact that there is a huge entertainment market being occupied by big local stars. Or how many Asian pop stars do you know? Correct, one – Psy from South Korea.

Joss Sticks
I wonder if there is a sightseeing tour without a shopping opportunity anywhere in the world.
But since they smell great and look pretty, handmade joss sticks do make a great souvenir.

Wanna ending a perfect day with a perfect dinner and don’t need to stick to Vietnamese food for once? We had excellent Indian food at Ganesh Indian restaurant on 34 Nguyen Tri Phuong Street.

Actually, the restaurant was my last stop – in the evening I had a flight from Hue to Hanoi.

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Complete Guide to HOI AN

(Updated October 2018)

I think the reason that I first was a bit disappointed by Viet Nam was the relative absence of this Asian sweetness and abundance of luxuriously decorated temples and mysterious tales. For instance, in comparison to Thailand, it felt so austere or even mundane. It’s more about everyday life than about magic. On the one hand, I liked it, on the other, I missed a little enchantment.

Phuc Quien assembly hall
Phuc Quien assembly hall – one of the most luxurious buildings.

Yet enchantment I’ve found – in the old town of Hoi An. Here you get an idea of how Vietnamese smalltown life must have been many decades ago.

Hoi An used to be an important Vietnamese trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. Today, it deems like an ethnological open-air museum for merchants’ life in Southeast Asia: Streets and alleys lined with beautiful ancient houses, one cuter than the other, arranged around a huge covered market in the center and a vibrant street market right next to river Thu Bon.

Fruit vendors in Hoi An
Fruit vendors.

Considering the Vietnamese way of driving, it’s very relaxing that in the very center of the historic district only bicycles are the only allowed vehicles.

Everybody seems to be riding a bike – some with a motor, others without.

The old temples and clans’ assembly halls guide you back to another fascinating social system.

Trung Hoa is the oldest Assembly Hall of Hoi An, dating back to 1741.

At the tourist center (see below) you can buy a ticket that grants you access to a couple of different halls, houses, temples, and the old Japanese bridge; not to be missed!

The iconic covered Japanese Bridge is even Hoi An’s logo. It crosses just a small creek and leads from the Trần Phú road into the Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai road, both very busy and full of shops, cafés, and historic buildings. Almost at the end of  Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai road….
….is another architectonic jewel, namely the temple Đình Cẩm Phô  

Hoi An Tourism 
567 Hai Ba Trung St
Hoi An
Phone: + 84 – 510 – 222 27 73

Most of the buildings along the main streets in the old town offer a wide range of solid handcrafted souvenirs from leather, silk, or wood. The bags, wallets, and belts made of tough, robust buffalo leather look really cool, and the silken lanterns are not only pretty, but they can also be folded and easily carried home.

Old House of Quan Thang – since people still live in some of the buildings, it takes a little not being intimidated by disturbing their privacy.

Especially the tailors along Nguyen Thai Hoc know exactly what they are doing, and they do it at an incredible price – mostly overnight! Yes, I got me an Ao Dai, the traditional female attire. And I was grateful when the lady measuring me mumbled I had to pay more since they will have to use so much fabric on me while she was checking the length and not the width…

xx tailors making my Ao Dai
The lovely ladies at Silk Road Tailor working on my Ao Dai (at least the one in the middle)…
Me wearing an Ao Dai
…and me proudly wearing it to the media ball in Hamburg.
(Photo: © Florian Büh)

Silk Road Hoi Han
91 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Hoi An
Phone:  +84 – 510 – 391 10 58

Of course, there are many nice restaurants serving all sorts of Vietnamese delicacies – my favorite is Bale Well on Tran Hung Dao, an unspectacular back alley. They have basically one or two dishes, but they are sooo good and plenty. The waitress prepares your first two to three Vietnamese rolls including chicken, kimchi, peanut sauce, and some other yummy stuff – and then you’re on your own; good luck with it.

If it doesn’t work out, the ingredients taste also good separately.

Vietnamese Dinner
Boy, she was fast preparing the Vietnamese rolls for me! I wasn’t even able to capture her hands.

After the culinary culture, some dramatic art was on my program. I cycled to the theater to see the traditional water puppet theater which is quite cute with lots of splashing and pyrotechnics.

Hoi An Water Puppet Show
548 Hai BàTrưng
Hoi An
Phone: +84 – 235 – 386 13 27; +84 – 941 – 37 89 79 (hotline)

The show takes place on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, starts at 6.30 p. m. and finishes at 7.15 p. m.

Everything was great, happy got lucky – until the next day.

While the early morning was still fine – I went on a tour to My Son, the remnants of the Cham’s most important religious center – very interesting site, lovely guide, nice co-travellers.

Remnants of the Cham Temple My Son. Reminds you of Angkor Wat? Well, the Cham actually conquered Angkor in the 12th century and stayed for a while.

Only on the boat ride back a heavy rain started – and didn’t stop for the next days. Therefore I wasn’t able to cycle to the nearby beach or even explore a little more of Hoi An’s beauty.

Rowing river Thu Bon
Idyllic Hoi An.

I need to come back.

Almost everything Hoi An is about in just one picture: Ancient architecture, fantastic food, and fun silken lanterns.
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Complete Guide to NHA TRANG

(Updated October 2018)

I’d heard bad things about Nha Trang – mainly that it’s the cradle of nasty mass tourism. But I wanted a couple of beach days on my route up North so I bit the bullet. And what can I say – it was not so bad after all.


Lobster Lady in Nha Trang
Comfortable tourist life: This lovely lady brings fresh cooked lobster and shrimps to the beach – melts in your mouth!

Yes, it’s very…developed, i. e. there are many big – probably all inclusive – hotels inhabited mainly by many big Russian tourists, who quietly hang out on the beach, so that’s fine. There is the classic touristy infrastructure with cafés and restaurants and souvenir shops. But everything is set up really nicely and it’s very well-tended. Along the fine beach runs a promenade with sculptures on trimmed lawns – if you’ve ever been to a touristy beach, you get the picture.

But compared to Mui Ne I liked it much better: It’s a standard, developed touristy beach destination. Period. Mui Ne is rather a dump – it’s not really deserted, it’s not really developed, it’s not very pretty; so if you just want a couple of days on the beach and for what reason ever cannot go South to e. g. Phu Quoc, Nha Trang is the better deal.

The beach is nice, but the waves are high and the current is wicked’n’wild.

Nope, I would not spend a three weeks holiday here. Yes, for three days it was absolutely fine.
I did stay at a cute little guest house in a back alley and did spend the days mostly on a rented beach bed on the beach. That’s the thing with this part of Viet Nam: the ocean is quite rough and there are big waves, so you have to be really careful.


Back Alley in Nha Trang
A back alley in Nha Trang – they sure have electricity here.

There is a city to be visited which is actually quite nice, but since cities were on my agenda everywhere else, I just went one afternoon. There is a lot of Vietnamese everyday life to be observed and a couple of sights like the Long-Sơn-Pagoda to be visited.

At the Eastern end of the city beach is Po Nagar. I walked there for about an hour along the beach; it was ok, but you don’t miss out on much if you take a cab.


Sleeping man in Nha Trang
Observation No. 1: Vietnamese are a very serene people and do sleep everywhere.

Lady working out in Nha Trang
Observation No. 2: Vietnamese are a highly sporty people. Everywhere you go, you see them working out. Here on the way to Po Nagar along the beach promenade.

The temple complex itself is nice and uphill so you have a good view. Talking about views, obviously, Viet Nam’s cities mainly developed after the end of the war in the 70s, hence this shows on the architecture: big, socialist, charmless concrete buildings that now destroy the silhouette on our holiday pics.


Not that any one of the sun worshipers cares, but Swiss-born Alexandre Yersin, who worked with Louis Pasteur, developed i. a. an anti-plague-serum that he manufactured in Nha Trang. He died in the city in 1943 – and according to this monument, he still is remembered by someone.

Back to old architecture: Po Nagar is an ancient Hindu temple complex from the Cham empire, installed in the 8th century and extended in the 9th. The main temple, the ‘Kalan’, from the 11th century, is the last great structure from the Cham architecture.


Cham Musicians at Po Nagar
Cham musicians at Po Nagar.

It’s also totally worth it leaving the beach area and stroll along the streets of Nha Trang to see what life is like. Make sure to climb up the hill to the Long Sơn Pagoda on Hai Mươi Ba Tháng Mười, Nha Trang most important place of worship.


The reclining Buddha at the Long Sơn Pagoda seems to be very happy….


….with the fancy pedicure he got.

Since I had only three weeks for my trip, instead of taking the bus, I chose to fly from Nha Trang to Hoi An – respectively Da Nang which is the closest airport to Hoi An.


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