Itinerary: Vietnam – Central Vietnam, 12 June – 18 July 2012

I had the opportunity to be part of a study abroad tour, and lived in central Vietnam for a bit. We did some cool side trips, so I will be reviewing those.

12 – 18 June: Hanoi

19 – 28 June: Hue

29 June – 01 July: Hoi An

02 July: Hue

03 – 11 July: Dong Ha

12 – 13 July: Dong Hoi

14 – 15 July: Dong Ha

16 – 17 July: Hue


Vietnam – Con Dao, 22 August 2011

I must have an affinity for prison islands. Anyway, just to spice up my library research trip, (and since the price was right) I decided to take a trip to Con Dao, which used to be known as Pulou Condore, and was famous for being a prison island during the French colonial era.

Con Dao is about 45 mins away from Ho Chi Minh City. It appears that getting there now is easier than in the past. Now, Vietnam Airlines offers almost daily flights (and sometimes, more than once a day) to Con Dao at reasonable prices (~100 usd, a little cheaper if you can score a deal), and so does Air Mekong . Both can be done online. I made my booking via Vietnam Airlines, and had no problems with the online booking system.

After the short flight from HCMC to the Con Dao airport, the reports on wikitravel about the difficulty of transportation was true. Most of the other passengers on the plane were staying either at Con Dao resort, ATC, or Six Senses, which sent their vans to pick up their hotel guests. Since I was staying at Con Dao Camping, and did not bother arranging for transportation beforehand, I was ever so slightly screwed. Thankfully, there were several xe om (motorbike taxis) hanging around, so I hopped onto one, and paid 50000 dong for the journey into town, which was about 12 km away from the airport.

The journey from the airport to town was amazingly picturesque. The island of Con Dao is rather hilly, and after the cliff, there’s the gorgeous blue-green sea. The road was ran along the coast, so I could see the contrast between the lush greenery, and the sea that beats relentlessly against the rocky cliffs.

Anyway, no drama getting to Con Dao Camping. Despite the misleading name of Con Dao Camping, this place actually consists of well-constructed bungalows built in the shape of tents. The bungalows are modern, comfortable, and have every amenity you would need: A/C, ensuite bathroom with hot water shower, cable-tv, and fridge. Prices range from 30 USD for a bungalow with two single beds, to 35 USD for a bungalow with a King bed. Be sure to send them an email to make your reservations. These simple, but comfortable bungalows face the sea, and in the compound, there is a well-kept lawn, complete with deck chairs, and a private beach just after the lawn. It is more tranquil compared to the stretch where ATC and Con Dao resort is located (where locals go swimming, too), and it is definitely cheaper than ATC and Con Dao resort (which range from 50 USD to above 100 USD). They also provide motorcycle rentals at the standard rate in Con Dao, and range from 20000 dong for 1 hr on a manual motorbike, to 130000 dong for a full day on an automatic motorbike. My only complaint is that the service is kinda slow. Also, go look for food elsewhere – they don’t really have a kitchen.

My first stop for the day was the prison camp. After working up my expectations for it, it was actually rather anti-climatic. It kinda looked like the one in displayed in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum. Architecturally, it was not exactly inspiring, unlike its British counterpart, the Circular Jail in Port Blair in the Andamans. Oh well, at least I can say I’ve been there now?

Anyways, I still enjoyed this trip. It is definitely a nice getaway from Vietnam, which is always so busy and bustling. Pace of life was definitely slower here, and people seem more laid back, and less rip-off-y. There were many beaches around, and an excellent people-to-beach ratio (i.e. very few people compared to the number of beaches). I have heard that the snorkelling, diving, and trekking was wonderful, but I guess I will have to explore that in a separate trip. But otherwise, just moped-ing around simply made my day!

Con Dao Camping

On Top the French Tiger Cages

Con Dao Coastline, and an Island beyond

Markers and Mirrors

A mysterious little isle, and fishing boats

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City, 16 – 21 August 2011

This was a library research trip. It’s been about a year since I last visited Ho Chi Minh City. Some changes? More new hotels; even taller buildings. But at least the strip that I walked so often in district 1 is still about the same.

Well, since I was there, I tried more new dishes. So, here goes:

  • Banh Beo Hue (Hue Rice Cakes?) in Ben Thanh Market:
This costs 13000 dong (about 70 cents usd). At first, it just looks like a plate of rice cakes with a pork pate. But when you actually eat it, it is quite interesting. Not all of the tiny rice cakes were created equal. Some of them were just straight up, chewy rice cakes, but there were some that were filled with prawns, while there were others filled with what I believe to be a bean paste. Topped with fried shallots and fish sauce, this was definitely a winner in my book. I went to the one by the corner, nearer to Le Thanh Ton. Just look for the crowd of people eating there, or the people who do like 15 portions of take-away.
Banh Beo Hue
  • Banh Khoai in Mon Hue by Le Thanh Ton (just a little off Ben Thanh Market)
I wanted to have some Bun Bo Hue, and try some other side dish, so I hopped into this central Vietnamese restaurant. Some of the stuff there looked really beautiful, like the spring rolls arranged in the form of a phoenix (~170000 dong). I didn’t try those. I had a Bun Bo Hue (beef rice noodle soup, Hue-style), which was not quite to my liking, since it was kinda sweet, and not as spicy as I hopped it would be. Anyway, the new dish I tried was the Banh Khoai (~35000 dong). My best explanation is that it is the Vietnamese version of a quiche, but this was topped with mushrooms, prawns, and sliced pork. Taste-wise, it was actually quite decent, but I couldn’t exactly finish it, as towards the end, it was just kinda greasy. Maybe it’d have been better if it was shared.
Banh Khoai
  • Bun Moc in Quan An Ngon on Pasteur Street
The Bun Moc can be found at various street vendors, but since I like Quan An Ngon so much, no trip to Vietnam is complete without it. Anyway, it is a rice noodle in broth with sliced pork and pork balls, and was about 45000 dong in Quan An Ngon. I liked it, but otherwise, I don’t quite know what else to write about it. I guess for me, what makes a Vietnamese soup dish for me is the filling, and since I liked the filling for this one, it worked out.
Bun Moc

Vietnam – Lunch in Ho Chi Minh City, 17 August 2010

Com Nieu Saigon,

19 Tu Xuong, Ho Chi Minh City

Ever since I watched Anthony Bourdain’s show on Com Nieu, I wanted to try it. So, today I finally went out to district 3 to try it for lunch.

Com Nieu is claypot rice, and I think the main selling point for this place is the theatrics that comes with it. They break the claypot, and toss the rice across the dining area, give it a few more tosses. If you are lucky, the server might even oblige with an extra roll. Taste-wise, it is crispy, and as they drizzle sesame oil over it, it is very fragrant. Just a tad pricey at 50000 dong (~2.5 USD/4 SGD).

Breaking the claypot

He catches the rice

Gives it an extra little toss

The tasty end result

We ordered three other dishes to go with it:

Tofu and Mushroom

Garlic Pork Ribs

Hanoi Spicy Fish Soup

The rest of the dishes were very nice, albeit a little pricey for Vietnamese standards. The whole meal costs around 300,000 dong (15 USD/23 SGD). A small point to note: the servers tend to try and recommend the more expensive dishes that cost around 150,000 dong (8 USD/12 SGD). There are, however, cheaper dishes available on the menu.

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City, 17 August 2010

Given that this is the fifth time I am here, I didn’t do much today, except walk towards Highlands cafe for some coffee and work.

Some interesting/depressing sights along the way:

Poster of Ton Duc Thang

I was quite surprised to see a poster of him, as the predominant figure of most posters is Ho Chi Minh. Ton Duc Thang is the first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For more on him, check out Imagined Ancestries Of Vietnamese Communism: Ton Duc Thang And The Politics Of History And Memory (Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies).

Some call the phone booth a home

The dazzling growth of Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam has its costs – the rich-poor gap has just widened, and some now call phone booths home, in a city which has seen the rise of housing costs, amongst other living costs.

Vietnam – Supper in Ho Chi Minh City, 16 August 2010

Brought the crew to Quan An Ngon for dinner, which was as usual, a hit. But shall not post on that, since I post a little too often about Quan An Ngon, and all that it has to offer.

A variation from the eating routine tonight was ice cream at Fanny’s in Vincom Tower on Hai Ba Trung Street. Fanny is an ice cream chain that was set up in Vietnam in 1994. For more of its history, you can check out Fanny’s website. We ordered avocado, durian and chocolate flavours, and cost range from 24,000 to 35,000 dong per scoop (1.50 USD/2 SGD to 2 USD/3SGD). The sundaes are cheaper per scoop. Obviously, I had zero interest in the durian, but I could certainly smell it, even if I didn’t try it. Avocado tasted like avocado, and the chocolate was smooth and pretty intense. I liked it.

Fanny’s Ice Cream

After ice cream and more walking, the rest of the crew decided to go shopping. I did one of my favourite things – perched myself on one of those flimsy plastic stools by the side walk, and proceeded to try another dish that I have not tried – bot chien. This looks like the Singaporean carrot cake, and looks to be fried radish with egg, accompanied by a dark fish sauce. According to the lady who made it, it is a Laotian dish. It tasted a little bland, but it was a good experience. Wallet damage? 20,000 dong (1 USD/1.50 SGD)

Bot Chien

Watching the world go by on my little stool