Across México: From CDMX to the Yucatan
March 7, 2019

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

We arrived in México Ciudad (nowadays shortened to CDMX) on February 6, 2019. after many weeks in South-East Asia and on Hawai’i this was our first step into Latin America and it would turn out to be one of my most favourite destinations so far. We had 18 days to spend before heading on to Cuba from Cancún Airport and there was a whole bunch on our list – after 2 days in the capital I was already sure I’d definitely want to return.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Ciudad de México (CDMX)

Having arranged a couchsurfing place beforehand (while still in Kaua’i) we made our way into the vast metro network of the capital and ended up in the district of Del Valle; our host lived at the metro stop Insurgentes Sur (about half an hour south of the the city center). We didn’t do much that first night, but drank wine with our host and her mom and cooked dinner. Also, this was the first time ever that we had a separate room each while couchsurfing, big luxury.

We spent three full days in the capital, splitting our time equally between three areas: the Centro Historico (day 1), Parque de Chapultepec (day 2) and Coyoacán (day 3).

Our first day of sightseeing began at the metro stop Juárez (named after likely the most famous and popular president México ever had, Benito Juárez) – from Alameda Central we made our way along the old and highly enchanting Palacio Postal, Zócalo and the Catedral Metropolitana to Templo Mayor and its museum, quite the gem and enough to relit interest in the old Aztec, pre-Spanish culture. Shortly after we got out, heading east towards the markets along Calle Moneda I was running into a former couchsurfer of mine, who recognized me on the spot; very delightful, Katerina!

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Further sightseeing highlights that day were the Plaza 23 de Mayo, the Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza Regina where we were being mesmerised by a rather fascinating street performance. Also, if you happen to be on Zócalo (the city’s main square) around 18:00, you can witness how soldiers take down the enormous national flag in one big ceremonial act.

First thing on the list for Day 2 was to arrange bus tickets to Oaxaca Ciudad for the day after (we meanwhile decided to spend one extra day in CDMX) – it’s not exactly straightforward buying tickets online with a non-Mexican credit card, so we were heading directly to the Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros Oriente (TAPO) before our actual day of sightseeing was about to begin. We took the metro to Insurgentes, then walked along the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma towards the Parque de Chapultepec and actually spent some 4 hours in the excellent Museo Nacional de Antropología, really one of the best museums I ever visited and absolutely worth every minute of your time and attention.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

After the museum we explored more things in and around the park:

  • the Tótem Canadiense
  • the water installations (around the Monumental Xochipilli)
  • the Fuente de Tláloc (in front of Diego Rivera’s Cárcamo de Dolores)
  • the cactus gardens just behind (at the Museo Jardin del Agua)
  • the Parque España and its counterpart, the highly enchanting Parque México

Somewhere around there we had dinner, got ourselves some beer and walked down the street as if we were smoking a spliff (apparently it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets in México). We then took the metro all the way to the stop Coyoacán and walked down into the district with the same name to meet Tere, a couchsurfer I hooked up with before, and her brother Alejandro. Brilliant and highly stimulant conversations followed; the feeling emerged that we will meet again some day. Some time later our couchhost Arlet joined the party and we soon moved on to another bar in the area; however, cK and I were quite too exhausted from one long day of sightseeing.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

Our final day in CDMX was to be focused on the very district we had beers the night before, Coyoacán – it happens to be where the famous Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had their homes, a very liberal and artistic minded area. We originally planned to get into Frida Kahlo’s house (turned into a museum ever since her death in 1954), but it turned out to be not only overpriced (250 pesos on a weekend day), but also terribly crowded. Instead, we decided to spend the time exploring more of charming Coyoacán, simply inhaling the stimulating spirit of art and raison d’être. We would not be disappointed at all, that place is packed with sweet surprises and wonderful street art. We especially fancied hanging out at the Parque de Frida Kahlo. If you happen to be here at night, I would recommend visiting a bar called El Jarocho.

Other things we did and see that day worth mentioning:

    the Parque de los Venados
    the Cineteca Nacional
    the Museo Casa de Leon Trotzky (we haven’t actually been inside, though)
    the gardens around the Museo de las Intervenciones
    exploring more of the area just north of the Centro Historico, especially around Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza 23 de Mayo

That was it for in the capital – later that evening on February 9 we jumped into the night bus towards Oaxaca Ciudad from TAPO in eastern CDMX.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Oaxaca

My personal expectations of both the state and its capital were reasonably high (due to the stories of my good friends Josie who happened to travel the area about a year earlier) and I was not to be disappointed in the least. Oaxaca delivered all the way and I utterly fell in love with it.

We arrived in Oaxaca Ciudad in the early hours of February 10, watching the sun rise while entering the Chocolate Hostal in la Calle de los Libres. I picked the place for good reviews on Booking.com and I also fancied the name. A friend from Sweden (who I visited in Bern in the summer of 2013) later wrote me that she had stayed in the same place just a mere weeks earlier.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

It was the perfect place for us by all means: With us waiting at the reception for a slightly confused hostel receptionist to get his stuff sorted was a traveler from Portugal named Roberto – a very peculiar, but likable character; the three of us ended up in the same room and I kept on sleeping until the sunbeams were hitting my face from a window towards the rooftop. I woke up hearing the sounds of a guitar being played and later went up to have a look at the source of it. This is how I got to know Julie, a girl from around Freiburg who now lived in Leipzig to study education – a very sympathetic street musician and artist. Her companion was a fellow traveler from Seattle, Washington, in his late 30s named Tim.

After cK and I spent a majority of the day wandering around the city, among other things listening to an open air concert in front of the Catedral de Oaxaca, I again made my way up to the rooftop terrace and then ran into three Austrian girls (named Gloria, Veronika and Miriam) who cK and I immediately connected with. That same night still the five of us rented a car for the upcoming 24 hours. After cooking dinner together I got up to the rooftop and spent the rest of that enchanting day chatting with Julie, Tim, and a young traveler from Argentina who provided us with the finest hierba.

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Next thing early morning, cK, the Austrians and I were driving towards Hierve El Agua, a set of natural rock formations that were being created by fresh water springs whose water is over-saturated with minerals like calcium carbonate. Apart from four other travelers who set up tents at the cascades we were the first people at the site and it was quite the sight. If you decide to go, you should definitely come as early as possible.

When driving back to Oaxaca, we passed through the attractive little city of Mitla, where we visited parts of the ruins north of town plus the Parroquia de San Pablo. On the way out we took a dusty sideroad and suddenly faced the first ever tornado (rather: a whirlwind) any of us has ever seen. Sweet and incredibly rapid!

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.
Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

After shortly stopping at Santa María del Tule (to see the age-old Arbol de Tule) we still tried to make it to Monte Alban, the original city of Oaxaca and now an archaeological site about 9km to the west from Oaxaca’s central square. We arrived right in time for the guards to close the gate and enjoyed the sunset over the city instead. Later that night we invited a young German artist into the hostel, Fabienne, who was about to be our couchhost for the 3rd night in town.

We joined a “free” walking tour the following day and made it to Monte Alban in the afternoon, hitching a ride in the back of a regular car (the five of us all squeezed together), enjoying the scenery almost completely devoid of other people before heading back to town to have dinner inside the Mercado 20 de noviembre. We more or less accidentally ended up in a back-alley of the theatre where they showed Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso (in O.V. with Spanish subtitles) on a projector. We highly enjoyed watching the spectacle (they had to restart the movie repeatedly due to technical difficulties) and organized some cans of beer that had to be carefully refilled into plastic bottles since Mexicans (quite like the Polish) are apparently so afraid of their citizens being drunk that they thought it a good idea to make drinking in public illicit. They caught us twice and we almost had to leave the open air cinema, but somehow managed.

Driving out of Mitla.

Driving out of Mitla.

The girls left that night towards CDMX and cK and I settled over to couchsurf with Fabienne who rented an apartment in the north-east of town. After visiting a bunch of art galleries and the city museum, getting lost in a bookshop and trying hard to find some purple dye and peroxide to colour our hair and beard we set off to catch a minibus towards the coast the next night. At the bus station of Transportes Villa de Pacífico we also met Roberto again who left the city together with us.

We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the early morning of February 14, didn’t book any accommodation in advance, but found two empty beds for us at Puerto Dreams Hostel, immediately falling asleep (I don’t even know if I was able to sleep in that minibus at all) – Roberto booked a bed at neighbouring La Escondida Hostel, but couldn’t check in until some time in the afternoon (but used the time to head down to the beaches). There was a Valentine’s Party at an associated hostel (Puerto Dreams Surf House) that ended in the pool at one point – and cK got himself a proper vaquero hat.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

After one lazy day at sweet Playa Coral in Escondido we took a late afternoon bus to Mazunte, but quickly realised that the last colectivo for the day was long gone, hence got stuck at the highway crossing before finally hitching to the beach and our pre-booked hostel called Dharma Spa (acceptable for a night, but otherwise not worth bothering). The next morning (February 16) my good friend Micha from Berlin arrived in Mazunte as well and I met him at the beach while cK was riding the colectivo to Pochutla to acquire information about bus connections and prizes from the coast to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas.

Micha was rather spontaneously booking a trip to México as well, like us starting with the capital (though a couple days later), but while we had already booked a connecting flight from Cancún to Cuba he was bound to return to CDMX. However, there was a sweet spot that just fit perfectly in both our itineraries and we used it to the fullest. First thing we did was organising new accommodation and we got lucky with a room directly at the beach, not far from the peninsula and Punta Cometa – the 3 of us paid 500 pesos for the night.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Right after we carried the backpacks over from the hostel we jumped into the water and there we met Julie and Tim a second time – they hitchhiked from Oaxaca Ciudad to the coast and based themselves at a work-away place in Puerto Escondido. Josie happened to be in Mazunte as well (in late 2017), so she was with us in thoughts when we ascended the peninsula for watching the sunset later and then ending the day with some hours of dancing to catchy, albeit quite familiar electro tunes in a night club just next door.

We took it easy the day after and eventually boarded a colectivo to Playa Zipolite some 5km further down the coast, a famous hippie hideaway, especially famous for its nude beach. Micha and I were just dropping out the water when we ran into Julie and Tim one final time. A good hour later we were already on our way to Pochutla where we got onto the night bus to Chiapas, having said farewell to Micha after a short, but splendid interlude. I can only hope that it won’t be too long until I see marvellous Oaxaca again.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Chiapas

A bunch of people who we met in Oaxaca recommended us the Puerta Vieja Hostel in San Cristóbal de las Casas and, as it turned out, that was indeed an excellent choice. We slept in an 18-bed dorm, spent a good amount of time in the hostel playing table tennis, had a superb vegan breakfast (even though I had to wait an eternity for it) and prepared a dead-cheap and supertasty dinner that was enough to fill our bellies a second night as well. On the evening of February 18 I booked my return flight to Europe (from Lima in Perú to Madrid in mid-May).

The day after, on our second sightseeing stroll, I once again ran into someone who recognised me from Couchsurfing – a Berlin-based traveler who just spent about a fortnight in Chiapas, most of the time in an area called El Panchán near the ancient city of Palenque.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Later, while cK had his beard trimmed at a local barber (who very sympathetically asked him all about the Berlin Wall, currently reading the ever-famous Diary of Anne Frank) I was buying myself a Spanish copy of Albert Camus’ El Extranjero (L’Étranger) and beginning to devour it on the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Paz when an old man was seating himself next to me, keeping me busy with eagerly asking a hundred questions. Quite enriching.

That night, coinciding with our 100th day on the road, there was a full moon party at the hostel and we happily indulged to the never-ending supply of utterly delicious mojitos that the owner himself was keen to distribute among the hostel guests. After some relaxing time in the hammocks we eventually found ourselves dancing with a group of British girls that caught my eye some hours before when still sitting on the city square answering the old man’s questions. There was a certain sense of extreme frivolity and excitement in the air that was about to burst any minute now – we clearly couldn’t have had a better time then right there, right then.

But we also had a bus to catch – as difficult as it was to break away from a rapture of pleasure and delight we actually managed to enter the night bus towards Palenque. The mojitos, unfortunately, as refreshing and enjoyable as they were, would now get back to us with a vengeance: When having a stop-over in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez the ADO personnel simply wouldn’t allow us to reenter the bus because we were to drunk (which manifested in varying degrees between the two of us). Either way, together with a traveler from Argentina (likely due to her foursquare persistence) I managed to obtain two new tickets to a follow-up coach and after another change into a smaller bus in Tabasco’s Villahermosa we finally arrived in Palenque in the early forenoon of February 20 – tired, exhausted, destroyed. After a short walk and a small, but energizing breakfast we hailed down a colectivo to the Zona Arqueología de Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

WikiTravel writes about the ruins, they would “still evoke some of the wonders that the early Spanish visitors must have felt” when coming across the area – well, we were probably arriving a bit too late for that, but either way: due to generally rather late opening times (08am) that peculiar sensation of being an early-day explorer will be denied to even the keenest early bird. This is in strict contrast to the absolutely mesmerising experience in Guatemala’s Tikal where it was (at least in 2011) still possible to enter the ruins in early morning mist with just enough darkness, utterly undisturbed by the chatter of toured groups and, even more relieving, of the trash-selling vendors who can literally “ruin” the sensation – to my knowledge they are still prohibited in Tikal (my all-time favorite Maya city experience).

However, wandering along the temples, even in a rather doubtful bodily condition was a wonderful experience and utterly worth the 75 pesos (plus another 36 for the national park fee); unlike to what we were about to pay for upcoming temples on the Yucatan Peninsula (see below).

While walking to El Panchám.

While walking to El Panchám.

Since the Museo de Sitio is included in the entrance fee, we visited that also – despite being close to taking a nap lying on the ground behind some installations. Most impressive was probably the sarcophagus room (the tomb of ruler Pakal who was in power between 615 and 683).

On the way out of the National Park we paid a short visit to El Panchám, found it to be an attractive (hippie) place to while away a couple days and returned to the city of Palenque to buy groceries, use the supermarket’s wifi connection and to withdraw money that was calculated precisely to last for the remaining couple of days in México and then entered just another night bus towards the Yucatan.

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Yucatan Peninsula

To claim I had a good night sleep would be pushing it, but I felt sufficiently arranged for another day of sightseeing – enter Mérida, capital of Yucatan State. It was early morning of February 21 and still being in the bus cK realised that he was being pickpocketed over night. Some sneaky asshole must have pulled out his bag, taken his new smartphone (freshly purchased in Hawai’i) and a good amount of the cash that we have just withdrawn a few hours earlier. Sweet morning, ya!

Luckily, cK still had his old phone ready in the backpack and we were soon out and about to explore the city. The bag drop within the ADO bus station was ridiculously expensive (a 100 pesos), so we were opting for a hotel and found one close to the center; the owner was a gem and since he didn’t ask for any money for keeping our luggage, I gave him a tip. Still in the hotel, cK noticed that they were also stealing his (cheapo) sunglasses from within the baggage compartment (which basically means that the ADO bus boys were responsible for it).

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes...

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes…

Mérida, despite boasting a population of about 850,000 people, has a rather compact city centre and we enjoyed discovering its treasures: art galleries, enchanting parks, an endless amount of picturesque doors and windows of a hundred colours, arty cafés and boutiques. After some hours of strolling around we hit the bus one more time and finally made it to Valladolid, some hours further to the east, the central city to a whole lot of Maya ruins and, even better, to an excellent selection of freshwater sinkholes, better known as cenotes.

There is quite a selection of hostels in town, but the prices vary strongly and we opted for a place called Guacamaya Hostel where we paid 300 pesos for a double bed (first time ever that we stayed in a sort of “double bed dormitory”). We shared the room with 4 other travelers from Argentina, none of whom spoke English (as was to be expected): 2 girls called Ana y María (one more klischee fulfilled) and two guys named Maximiliano and Jonathan, quite an interesting as well as amusing couple. We felt immediately comfortable in Valladolid and especially the central park (Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado) was a delight to walk around at after sunset.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

After some intense consideration of where to go to see more Maya ruins we eventually decided against world-famous Chichen Itzá and for the much lesser known Ek Balam site – not an easy decision: While the temples around Chichen Itzá are surely stunning and breath-taking we also didn’t feel like tourist groups and vendors and then there was Ek Balam popping up which was almost as expensive as the C.I., but featured a pyramid on top of an ‘acropolis’ that one was actually allowed to ascent. The die was cast.

We actually managed to be the first two visitors in Ek Balam (originally known as Talol) and had to wait about 30min until it was finally 08:00. When we were there they charged us 413 pesos for the entrance (which is heaps even for European standards), but expect to pay even more in the upcoming months and years. Nevertheless, the view from atop the pyramid, the lack of tourists and vendors, the ability to freely climb around before any security shows up and also the abundance of iguanos on and around the temples was actually worth it. Also, there is a cenote close-by (and it happened to be the first one we ever visited – hooray!). To visit that one, though, you’ll be charged another 50 pesos. Still, worth it.

We later hitchhiked back to town and visited Valladolid’s city cenote (for a very acceptable 30 pesos entrance fee) which was clearly worth every minute. This whole cenote business is actually worth a blog post in its own right since their story of origin is so fascinating.

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam...

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam…

...before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

…before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

The last stop on our Méxican journey was the town of Tulum, some two hours south of Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo. There is not much to say about that last bit: The place is acceptable, but I wouldn’t think of returning there: It’s packed with tourists (mostly U.S. Americans, but also bunches of Argentinians and Europeans), the cenotes are utterly overprized and the beaches mediocre. It was an okay place to spend our last night at before hopping on the plane from Cancún to La Habana on the Communist island of Cuba. But that’s another story – waiting to be told while sitting in a Viazul bus making its way to Santiago from the pretty town of Camagüey.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Costs

Not surprisingly, México was second in line when it comes to costs: much cheaper then Hawai’i, but also clearly more expensive than Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam (plus Thailand and Myanmar, even though I haven’t tracked the details for that trip).

The Viet Nam Journey
January 14, 2019

Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Viet Nam! The one country in South-East Asia really everybody seems to have an opinion about. After so many varying stories I was told, there was much to be excited about and still I was surprised. In the end I really didn’t know what to expect anymore (especially after having seen most other countries in the region (except for China and, well, the Philippines). But for the better!

Some claimed the locals were a lot less friendly and even quite grumpy towards foreigners (in comparison), others weren’t quite as condemning. Many said the food would be noticeably more expensive, others put their focus of complaint on the transport. The latter, however, would be much more comfortable and straight-forward than say, in Thailand or Myanmar. Also, is it perhaps worth booking hostel beds (and rooms) in advance?

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Clearing up the Basics

Now, so what actually proved to be true? I’ll come straight to the point in a little bulletin list before getting into spicy details plus explaining my little 16-day itinerary from south to north.

  • Yes, I also found the food substantially more expensive than in, say, Indonesia, Myanmar or mainland Thailand and even more so than in Malaysia.
  • Buses are very straightforward and they are also quite comfortable (and relatively fast). Most buses (especially when traveling overnight) are sleepers. Just make sure you get a lower bunk bed. Not only is it a lot shakier up there, it’s probably also better for your phones. (Never before have I seen smartphones raining down in that high a frequency. Some didn’t survive.) Price-wise, buses are not considerably more or less expensive than anywhere else in SE-Asia (imho). For a sleeper from e.g. Da Lat (in Southern Vietnam) to Hoi An (in the centre) I paid 300,000 d (around €12).
    Accomodation is possibly the cheapest I’ve ever came across. Like, seriously cheap. If you’d pay more than, say, 120,000 Dong for a night in a hostel bed (about €4,80) that would already count as luxury for some. Rather expect to pay between 60,000 and 100,000 for a comfortable bed (between €2 and 4).
    Yes, I did make the acquaintance of quite some real nasty and almost heinous individuals and definitely more so than anywhere else in Asia (so far – maybe they shoot travelers on arrival in Papua New Guinea?). However, those unpleasant encounters almost always occurred in areas that were more or less spoiled by tourism. Still, some behaviour left me quite speechless. Even if there are language barriers, there should always be a way to make yourself understood in a peaceful way, even if only with gestures or just a little patience (something many Vietnamese seem to lack in general). Still, I met so many wonderful locals, no-one can claim that there wouldn’t usually be a smooth way out of things if one wanted to.
Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Concerning Cash

The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and €1 buys you approx. 26,000 Dong (d) and a bit, hence I roughly calculated: 100,000 are about €4. Differently put: Multiply the price in dong by 4 and you get the right amount in Eurocents, e.g. 7 (thousand) Dong (d) times 4 would be 28 cents (and so on).

Overall I have spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country, having 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

Overall I’ve spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country on 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

The prices for transportation, food, etc. in the graphic above are given in Euro, but I exclusively paid in VND (the exchange rate for Euro or U.S. $ would be worse for you virtually all the time. It also (always) feels a bit awkward to see them use price tags given in dollars even when it comes to a bowl of noodles or a fruit juice. Didn’t they fight yankee capitalism to the blood still some mere decades ago…. ah, yes, I know – money rules the world and likely always will. 🤑😲🤮

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

The Visa Situation

The major reason (apart from time) for not getting into Vietnam already back in 2013 when cK and I were already on the Pancake Trail was the more expensive visa of (I can’t remember precisely now) some € 50 or so. All this has changed: Most Westerners can now stay in the country

  • for less then 15 days without a visa (for free!)
  • for up to one month (via e-visa, $ U.S. 25 (to be paid by arrival – if you pay in euro it’s also 25, but you’ll get some U.S. dollars back)
  • for up to 3 months (via e-visa, $ U.S.)

Travel Itinerary

So I arrived at Saigon Airport on the evening of December 20, paid for the 1 month visa (since I’d stay slightly longer than 2 weeks) and made my way to the city centre with bus nr. 109 for a mere 20,000 d. First thing I noticed about accomodation: You’re usually better off booking a bed in advance at most places – you’d actually pay more when just walking up to a place. Also, the desired hostel or guesthouse might quickly fill up. I never paid more than that very first night in Saigon, however: 110,000 d for a bed in a room shared with 5 other lads.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

So what is it about the name? Well, the communist North won the war and ever since they marched into Saigon in 1975 they decided to rename the country’s largest city to honour their great leader Ho Chi Minh (who was already dead by then). It remains questionable if he liked a city to be named after him (he also explicitly wanted to be buried, but the communist leaders thought differently and today you can stare at his decaying body in a mausoleum in Hanoi (the capital), Lenin-style (I didn’t actually do that).

In various ways: Saigon is intense! – and I didn’t mind it, but found it quite sympathetic even. However, it probably didn’t hurt to have expected the worst right from the start (generally not being a huge fan of motorcycles). So I arranged myself right from the start and, in fact, found it quite amusing how busy everyone appears while utterly frantically (and recklessly) rushing through the alleys, honking around like there would be no tomorrow, coughing and spitting, but never really yelling (at least not on the street) and often enough transforming the foot path into an additional biking lane, too.

You should indeed always be prepared for the worst. Nothing ever happened to me, but I repeatedly heard stories of travelers having their cell phones snatched by some sneaky prick riding his bike on the foot path just when one would be checking directions. So keep your eyes open!

Having said so much: Most locals are not only honest, of course, they’re real fun to communicate (and sometimes even hang out) with. Walking along Tôn Dúc Tháng (a big alley at Saigon River) I got enthusiastically welcomed by a friendly “Good morning, Vietnam!”, reminiscent of the occasional war movie.

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Places you shouldn’t miss in town:

  • Saigon’s (hyped-up) version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road: Bui Vien Street, an alleged “walking street” filled with everything the casual traveler would crave for (funky street food, dodgy massage offers, commie style T-shirts and LOTS of bars), just below 23/9 Park – obviously, “walking street” does not mean that you aren’t sharing the experience with your fair share of honking bikes and cars
  • the Museum of Fine Arts (feat. a fine selection of local art in three buildings
  • the Museum of Ho-Chi-Minh City (with some sweet views over the skyline)
  • the War Remnants Museum (being the biggest and most popular museum in town: touching photo exhibitions with lots of explanation on 3 floors plus a wide selection of tanks and airplanes just outside
    Taking some time out at Tao Dan Park and Le Van Tam Park
    the historic Saigon Central Post Office plus the Notre Dame Cathedral (just opposite)
    feeling like a proper tourist inside Ben Tanh Tourist Market (I at least had a real lovely fruit shake inside)
  • relaxing at the Botanical Gardens to the north of the city
  • getting lost in some back street and randomly talking to some kids or making conversation with curious locals

Two full days in vibrant, lively Saigon were enough for me, but the city has surely more to offer, especially if you feel like hitting the dance floor or get seriously wasted in some bar late at night – just take care of your cash, it easily starts growing legs (as Lonely Planet would phrase it).

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Next on for me was Da Lat, a hill station being built by the French colonial rulers in the 19th century. By bus it’s some 7 hours up to the north, conveniently located in the much fresher South Central Vietnamese Highlands. It features an abundance of old French villas, surrounded by nature and a bunch of waterfalls. A very likeable place! I spent most of my time here wandering around and can highly recommend the following things:

  • walking to the old Train Station, passing by the city square (feat. funky buildings) and then surrounding Xuan Huong Lake, either checking out the Flower Park in the north or enjoying the tranquility of the island just below
  • visiting the so-called Crazy House, a fairytale-like gem designed by a famous Vietnamase architect named Đặng Việt Nga, who happens to be the daughter of some Communist official (which saved her long-time project from being attacked by the rather backward-oriented party dictatorship). You can also book a night in of the extraordinarily designed rooms here as the place also serves as a guesthouse, then having the whole fantastic construction (almost) all to yourself at sunset or sunrise
  • enjoying street food and being interviewed by excited locals and Asian visitors alike at the Night Market (around the city centre)
The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

I stayed at a place called An Hostel and Café and ended up sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with a fellow traveler called Kate at Christmas Eve, a wonderful companion (and congenial converser) – the only problem being that she would be heading south towards Saigon while I was on my way up. (However, quite some travelers wouldn’t be deterred from Vietnam’s rather straight-forward geographic shape and instead travel up and down as the winds would carry them – provided they had the time.)

I sadly had to leave Kate (plus another like-minded traveler) behind already the following day. The two of them, though, would eventually team up and spend New Year’s Eve together in the big city (after having been to the coastal town of Mui Ne that I would have liked to see if it wasn’t for the limited schedule).

Next on was a night bus to Hoi An in Central Vietnam and I opted to stay somewhere rather off-centre in a place called Beautiful Moon Villa/Sky House (the owner is called Sky). Hoi An is basically most traveler’s darling since the city is so very approachable and charming at the same time. What people come here for is the Old Town (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) consisting of Chinese-style shophouses, offering everything from postcards and posters to food and clothes mingled with a dozen interesting temples, art galleries and tailor shops.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

The already likeable atmosphere almost turns over-the-top kitschy by sunset when hundreds of multi-coloured Chinese lanterns are being lit up, various small boats start shifting romance-seeking tourists around, bumping into one another from one shore to the other. It’s quite the spectacle to watch really!

Just some 4 hours north of Hoi An (hence still very much in the country’s centre) lies the former imperial capital city Hue. While the tourist area just east of the city’s centre (across the so-called Perfume River) is not exactly appealing, it’s not a long way for escaping the tourist trap shops and restaurants (which feature ludicrous price ranges).

Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai, who abdicated when Ho Chi Minh rose to power, was reigning right from the former Imperial City (basically a citadel within a citadel that was incorporating a third citadel called The Purple Forbidden City) which has been heavily bombarded by the U.S. Americans during the war (that officially only ended in 1975 when the last Marines left the country). The reconstruction is far from being finished, but the place is still very much worth visit.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Shortly after arriving in Hue I got to know a Polish traveler from Gdansk (who was sitting in the same bus coming from Hoi An) – she told me about an abandoned water/amusement park that she heard about and wanted to visit. I was completely down by the time she mentioned the word “abandoned”, so we agreed to team up with another traveler and share a Grab (basically Asia’s Uber) to the place which was well-signed in the offline map app maps.me. We were eventually joined by just another curious adventurer called Shalom, a Mexican girl who I shared a dorm with in Hoi An’s Sky House.

So the four of us showed up at the old park entrance which was guarded by a dude in uniform who told us somewhat firmly that the park would be closed. After we were (sort of) pressing him for an “exception” he rather unexpectedly blinked at us, indicating to walk around the former entrance and try it from another side. We understood, backed off and found our way through some village lanes until approaching the first indicators of the old water park, overgrown statues and some sort of platform.

In the distance we saw some other people climbing along the abandoned stadium part and just when we were setting off to join them we noticed another uniformed dude on a motorbike coming for us instead. After some wild discussing we bribed the dude (paying some 10,000 Dong each), promised not to climb anything, “just taking photos” and off we went to the see the famous dragon statue and, some time later, the water slides and pools.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

I later learned that the park allegedly closed down only in 2004 after being an economic disaster – the locals claimed that the whole thing was doomed to fail from the start as it was erected on top of an ancient grave yard. Then there was a series of lethal incidents during the construction work and, finally, one newspaper article reported that the area was, in fact, plagued by crocodiles (having escaped from the aquariums and now attacking the local population of water buffaloes). We were joking around about that, of course, but finding the aquarium tanks beneath the massive dragon statue dismantled certainly helped to arouse an appropriate ambience. We loved the place and I have no difficulty imagining it as a setting for a fun (trash) horror film.

That same day I was leaving Hue behind already and almost missed to get out of the bus when arriving in Ninh Binh, some 90 km south of Hanoi. First thing noticeable was how very much colder everything was that far up in the country’s north. I was still wearing short trousers, sandals and a wifebeater shirt when jumping into a metered taxi taking me to neighbouring Tam Coc (some 9 km away), often being referred to as Vietnam’s inland version of Halong Bay: vast limestone cliffs being surrounded by numerous rice paddies and delightful water ways, much more accessible and also much less touristic; I was keen.

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

That night it was raining heavily and I already feared for the worst, but the clouds were clearing up in the morning and after a lovely breakfast with my 2 room mates from Japan (Michita) and Israel (Martin, who arrived at the home stay just minutes before me), Michita and I decided to rent out bikes and explore the area. I was certainly not to be disappointed, especially not after having been on top of Mua Cave, that allows fascinating panorama views of the surrounding area (despite a rather smacking 100,000 d entrance fee).

You can also rent out a boat in Tam Coc and make your way to Trang An (and return), but the weather wasn’t inviting enough plus I felt that being on the limestones was a much more rewarding experience. At night it was drinking beers and playing chess with Martin before heading to bed and getting up early the following morning in order to catch the bus to the island of Cat Ba.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Cat Ba is situated just south of world-famous Halong Bay (some 170 km east of Hanoi), popular for its sheer endless amount of limestone/karst rocks popping out of the sea. Beautiful, I’m sure – but also overfilled with Chinese tourists and frantic locals trying to suck out ever dong of every traveler approaching (this is at least how I imagined it to be), so I was opting for the largest of the 1,969 islands instead, Cat Ba.

The plan was to meet up with a friend I got to know on a roadtrip through Southern Europe in 2015 and who now happened to travel through South-East Asia as well – then somehow squeeze in a visit to the rice fields of Sapa (close to the Chinese boarder) before spending my last day of this trip in the country’s capital. Obviously everything turned out just slightly different (just what I love about traveling, though).

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

The friend I was looking forward to meet made it to Cat Ba Island (together with her travel companions), but they felt like spending New Year’s at a more urban (and not quite so fresh) place, so they left Cat Ba Town before we were able to meet up. However, Shalom, the Mexican girl I got to know in Hoi An (viva la Pancake Trail!), meanwhile made it into town and stayed at my otherwise vacant hostel dorm.

Also, while exploring the remnants of Fort Cannon (including some abandoned lookout points and paths) I met a bunch of traveling Brits whose company was quite… refreshing). We all ended up dancing and sipping happy hour cocktails in some bar just on the town’s main road when 2019 kicked in. And that was it! May the new year bring even more unexpected twists and turns and – especially so – exciting and stimulating new input in the shape of inspiring human beings…

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

On New Year’s Day, Shalom and I were renting bicycles and exploring the actual treasures of the big island, passing by apparently abandoned (but beautiful) guest houses, lots of view points over inland limestone hills and caves (e.g. a place called Hospital Cave that was used as such during the war against the Americans).

On January 2nd we finally headed off to Hanoi and I scratched all plans of going further north: January simply isn’t the right time to see blooming rice fields in sunshine on multiple-day treks, so I opted for spending all my remaining time in the capital – and as mental as the people behave in traffic: it’s clearly been a worthwhile visit! I recommend doing (or seeing) the following when in town:

  • exploring the Temple of Literature – the country’s first university (est. in 1076)
  • the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. American POWs), built by the French around 1900 to imprison and execute Vietnamese freedom fighters in a brutal colonial regime, later used for keeping American soldiers – the photos shown have a twisted aftertaste of Commie propaganda and should be taken with a large dose of scepticism
  • the area around Truc Bach Lake, especially the Tran Quoc Pagoda – there is well-sorted, but quite expensive English boom shop called Bookworm
  • reading a book in the tranquility of Bay Mau Lake (south of the Old Quarter) or inside the (small, but sufficiently charming) Botanical Gardens
  • discovering the backstreets around the B52 Lake, a pond in which a U.S. American B52 bomber was downed and is now slowly decaying (there is also a museum further south, named accordingly)
  • enjoying colonial architecture and more museums east of the Opera House
  • strolling around Hô Hoàn Kiêm, shooting time lapses of the Red Bridge and getting lost in the mad market frenzy between there and the Dong Xuan Market hall
The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

I stayed in Hanoi for 3 days and nights and finally met my old roadtrip companion from 2015 – she and her friends were renting an Air B’n’B close to the opera and I spent one night there at a game night. Beer is cheap in Vietnam (compared to predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia), so we enjoyed our fair share. On my last full day in the country I got fully absorbed in the tourist market hole, making myself a present for some rather sweet 15 days in the shape of brandnew purple-coloured shoes. On January 5 I jumped on a shuttle bus to the airport and left for Kuala Lumpur (where I spent one whole night writing and editing). The day after I finally reunited with my good old travel companion cK in Sulawesi, two full weeks of island and jungle adventures ahead of us – but that’s another chapter.

The easy life in Tam Coc.
The easy life in Tam Coc.