Disclaimer: The following article is brought to you by a sarcastic, pessimistic and opinionated bastard who likes motorcycles, beer, spicy food, and not much else. Assume everything you read here is completely wrong. Enjoy.
—- Who What When Where (Cont’d) Why How —-
Q: Why do you keep going on and on about tourism ruining Vietnam? You must be exaggerating because it can’t be that bad.
A: I admit that I have a profound hatred for tourist spots. It probably originated when I saw Shamu maul Donald Duck on a sixth grade field trip to Orlando.
In all seriousness though –$180/acre swampland and mindless pre-diabetic sunburnt tourists go together perfectly. They go together like peas and carrots, like Forrest and Bubba, and like Mickey and Mouse.
Fragile ecosystems, powerless indigenous ethnic minorities, thousands of busloads of tourists, and unchecked capitalism do not go well together. These countries are getting trashed, and they are getting trashed quickly. This isn’t progress; this is the equivalent of building a Hooters Casino in Yellowstone National Park.
Here’s a link to a 360 degree drone shot of the Ha Long Bay Unesco World Heritage Sight area that should horrify you. It’s filled with cruise ships, cable cars, a giant ferris wheel, rollercoasters, waterslides, high rise hotels, and dozens of tour boats. Click HERE and zoom in while looking around.
There is no going back now and herein lies the problem. Tourism has exploded worldwide while Instagram shows alluring nature photos and articles (like this very one) give step-by-step How-To instructions.
It is now a race to experience these places before infrastructure gets built to accommodate mass tourism. It’s too late for Ha Long Bay, but read on for a few alternatives.
Ha Long Bay (UNESCO World Heritage Site) Lan Ha Bay:
- For the love of the ADV gods, do not get on a tour bus in Hanoi and take a two day/one night Ha Long Bay cruise. Get on your bike and ride to Cat Ba island to experience Lan Ha Bay instead.
- Plan on three days minimum. One travel day in each direction, plus one or two days kicking around Cat Ba island. Better yet, incorporate it into a northern loop.
- Day 1: Ride your moto from Hanoi to Ha Long City area. Stop at the pottery district or the snake district on your way out of Hanoi.
- Unfortunately I don’t have a nice scenic route between Hanoi and the coast. Try to stay in the foothills north of the truck routes.
- If you have the time, go north from Ha Long City along the coast to experience the coastline. It’s a mix of beautiful scenery and Vietnamese chaos.
- Spend the night somewhere around Ha Long City.
- Day 2: Catch the early ferry to Cat Ba island. The ferry goes through the same beautiful karsts that the tour boats go through, but you’ll be traveling with locals.
- Note: There are two ferries, you want the longer one that leaves from Bến phà Tuần Châu.
- Here is the ferry schedule; confirmed accurate as of April 2019:
- Once you are on Cat Ba Island feel free to get annoyed by all the hippy backpackers. Then ride your bike to the supply boat at Bến Bèo.
- Park your bike and look for the big supply boat. Water taxi people will approach you and ask “where do you want to go?” Point at the big boat and say “Việt Hải” because that’s where the big boat is going.
- If I recall correctly the supply boat leaves at 11am, and the cost is around $2 or $4 per person. They will offer to take your bike too. Don’t take your bike, as you can’t get back from Việt Hải via land. Ask me how I know…
- Grab a couple of beers from the convenience store, sit back on the boat and watch the general chaos around you while you wait for the boat to depart. Make sure to grab a beer or two for the locals riding with you, they will really appreciate it.
- Bonus – the boat doesn’t just supply Việt Hải, it supplies many of the people living on the water. They will come to the supply boat and get fuel and food and other necessities while it is traveling through the bay.
- Once the supply boat gets to Việt Hải you can rent a bicycle and ride to the village. BE CAREFUL as the boat will depart Việt Hải and return to Bến Bèo in about 45 minutes or so. If you aren’t on when it leaves you’ll have to take a water taxi back.
- Once you return spend a little time exploring the mountain on Cat Ba, which used to have a military base at its summit.
- Day 3: Continue on your loop or head back to Hanoi.
- If you are feeling more adventurous (and have more time) research going to Quan Lạn Island or Cô Tô Islands.
— North – Central Vietnam —
I haven’t visited this region yet but I’ll be heading there next time I’m in the neighborhood. Here are a few places that are on my to-do list:
- Trang An Landscape Complex
- Limestone karsts like Ha Long Bay, but these are on land and have rivers running between them.
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
- Massive caves, some of the largest on earth.
- Vinh Moc Tunnels
- An entire village moved underground during the war.
— Central Vietnam —
Central Vietnam is a hotspot for military history buffs. This is one of the few places in the country that you might actually have a chance of pronouncing the city names.
- Hue Citadel (Unesco World Heritage Site)
- Royal Tombs (Unesco World Heritage Sites)
- Tomb of King Thieu Tri
- Tomb of Tu Duc
- Tomb of Khai Dinh
- Thien Mu Pagoda
Thuy Tien Lake Abandoned Water Park
Between Hue and Da Nang:
- An Bang Cemetery
- This is an amazing collection of private tombs on a narrow strip of land ESE of Hue.
- An article with more photos is HERE.
- Wooden Boat Factory
- This isn’t really a tourist spot, but you can watch boats being built from the side of the road.
- Location is here: 349455, 107.909840
- Elephant Springs
- Search for “Suoi Voi” on Google maps
- Hai Van Pass
- This is the route that Top Gear took. It is the Vietnamese equivalent of Deals Gap or Angeles Forest.
- “Deo Hai Van” translates to “Ocean Cloud Pass” so you should expect mist and rain if you are traveling in the wintertime.
- This used to be the main North-South route, but now there is a tunnel bypassing this section, so traffic is very light except for the occasional tanker truck.
- The Marble Mountains
- Museum of Military Zone 5
- This is a good regional museum. The content is similar to most other Vietnamese military museums, but this one just seems a bit more authentic than the rest. Location location location…
- Da Nang Fine Arts Museum
- History Museum of Da Nang
- Dragon Bridge
- Monkey Mountain / Giant Buddah
The roads in the central highlands are brilliant: twisty, scenic, and not much traffic. Besides the local Vietnamese culture, you can also check out:
- Khe Sanh Combat Base
- Hamburger Hill
- The hike up to the memorial plaque is really tough in 80 degree heat and drizzle. Ask me how I know…
- The Rockpile
Hoi An Area:
- Hoi An Ancient Town (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Hoi An was an international commercial port from the 1500s to the 1700s; one of the most prosperous ports in Southeast Asia. It was located on the trade route between Japan, China, and India.
- Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Portuguese, and Dutch traders all settled in the city.
- When the French took control they moved commercial operations up to Da Nang, leaving Hoi An as a time capsule, similar to Bruges.
- Like Bruges, this otherwise amazing place has now become loaded with tourists.
- Similar to Bac Ha, you must get out of your hotel early, before 7am, to walk around and interact with locals before the tour buses arrive. Make sure to go to the market along the river.
- After the tour buses arrive you can find refuge at the Reaching Out Teahouse. All the staff are deaf, but communication is no problem with gestures and little “communication tiles”.
- Additional interesting spots include an incense shop at the Northeast corner of the Japanese Bridge, the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum, and several “Ancient Houses”.
- Hotel recommendation: La Residencia Boutique Hotel, it was very nice and has one of the best breakfasts you can imagine.
- My Son Temples (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Located about an hour ride west-southwest of Hoi An.
- Set aside an entire day to make the trip there, explore the area, and return.
- Thanh Ha Pottery Village
- A short ride due west of Hoi An
— Southern Vietnam —
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon):
- Independence Palace
- Vietnam History Museum
- Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum
- Chu Chi Tunnels
- Recommend going to the Ben Duoc location; apparently the tour busses go to the Ben Dinh location
- War Remnants Museum
- Regardless of your political beliefs, this museum is 100 percent worth visiting. Although it is full of propaganda and graphic images, the content is something that we don’t experience in western museums.
- As a history and photography buff, it was fascinating to see the photos taken by the North Vietnamese and Communist Block photographers. Most of them I had not seen before.
- There are many graphic images of the long term effects of war on the population, especially mines and birth defects. Dioxins from Agent Orange (and other defoliants) are in the ecosystem and are continuing to cause birth defects. One of the biggest shocks to me was how often you see handicapped and deformed people on the streets of Saigon. Most of the long-term studies that have been done were on American veterans and their families; the increase in birth defects has been well-documented. It’s more difficult to find quantitative data on the impact of dioxins on the Vietnamese people. This museum does more than quantify birth defects; the museum captures the human impact. Here’s a short but excellent article that really conveys the situation better than I could.
- If you are interested in seeing images from the museum you can see many of them on TripAdvisor.
— So Much More —
I have not visited Dalat, Nha Trang, or the island of Phu Quoc. Other travelers have indicated that they are all places worth visiting.
Have you been to other places in Vietnam that are worth seeing? If so, please add your suggestions in the comments area below.
To be continued….
Part 4 is coming soon. Topics will include:
- Driving Insanity
- Getting a Visa
- Finding hotels
- Lots of other logistics