Vietnam

 January 2011
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Good Morning Vietnam!

We flew Laos Airways into Hanoi, having a small snack on the flight.  During the van ride to our hotel a few things stood out; like the super modern highway we were on was flanked by fields on either side that were being worked with water buffalo pulling plows and locals in conical hats.  Along the side of the highway, right on the shoulder were vendors selling fruit and bread.  As we got closer to town the architecture of the houses was not what I expected (though I am not sure what I expected).  They were tall, four or five stories, narrow, connected like row houses and brightly colored.  There were ornate balconies at each floor and laundry hanging from most.  The wires at every street corner were a site and we soon saw T-shirts with the image and "Vietnam Telecom" emblazoned on the front.

Our guide, (once again, Lek was a friend as the Vietnamese government requires local guides), told us that the colors are chosen based on a fortune tellers advice as to what would bring the family luck.  Many times the different floors of a house would be a different family and a different lucky color.  Bill asked Thuc, our guide, about the tax system in Vietnam and found that it is a tiered system much like US income tax, starting at 10% and rising to 40%.  The locals selling in the old markets are allowed to sell what they can without paying tax most of the time.

Our small boutique hotel was a short walk from the old quarter.  It was cold in Hanoi and the heater never did work in the room, but we had hot water and we spent very little time in the room.

 

         

After dropping off our laundry a few doors down we were off for an impromptu tour of the old quarter with Lek showing us around, followed by dinner in a restored ancient house, now a restaurant.  Hanoi is a bustling city with what appears to be a large young population.  It is a chaotic mix of non stop talking, horns honking, motorcycle engines revving, dishes clanking, construction banging and police sirens.  We walked past a proliferation of shops selling jeans, cell phone accessories, luggage, and shoes. 

Street crossing is an art form here as the motorcycles never stop.  You have to start out and keep walking and let them maneuver around you.  Its not unlike some parts of China so was not too foreign to us, but still takes some nerve.  Click on the photo below to see a video of normal street traffic in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

 

The next day was packed with sight seeing starting with a visit to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, tomb and residence.  Going through the mausoleum to view Ho Chi Minh's body was odd but the pomp and circumstance of the ritual was interesting.  We toured his residence and grounds and then walked a short distance to the Military Museum to view artifacts from the "American War".  Lots of tanks, aircraft, jeeps and bombs.  There was a lot of information about the battles with the French as well.

Had a quick lunch and made our way to the "Hanoi Hilton" of John McCain lore.  Most of the prison has been torn down but a section has been maintained as a museum.  Again there was a lot of information about the many long battles with the French and only a couple rooms with anything related to the American pilots.

 

         

For our evening entertainment we attended the Water Puppet Theater.  The puppetry is preformed waist deep in water with wooden puppets.  The puppeteers are behind a screen.  The stories are from Vietnam folklore and everything was, of course, in Vietnamese so we couldn't really get the story but completely enjoyed the artistry and music involved.  Here is a short video of the puppets and the music, just click on this guy:

Dinner was at another restaurant that employs and teaches street children.  This one called KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One.  And again the food was excellent.  We met a group of people that would be touring with us through Vietnam.  Derek and Jackie as well as Ciara and Norrette would be leaving and 10 more people would join us.  This would be the largest GAP group we have been with.  Seven tour mates would be leaving after the Vietnam section and the group falls back down to just eight of us after that. 

There was Steve and Priscila, Cass, Ben and Michelle and Victoria;  all from the UK.  Ingrid from Holland (I think),  Wiebke and Doerte, two girls from Germany and Diana, an American girl from the mid-west joining us.

The next day a three hour van ride took us to Bai Chay harbor for an overnight stay on a Junk cruising Halong Bay.  We made good time and because we got there early we were able to make a stop at a  local market and take a look around.  Lots of seafood, fruits and vegetables and dog meat.

 

        

It was misty, cool and a little rainy so we didn't get to experience swimming in the bay and our pictures just can't do justice to the beauty of the place or the experience.  The boat was all wood, very nice with a large dining room in the center, a deck for relaxing with lounge chairs and lovely rooms with en-suite bathrooms.

We were served a nine course lunch of clams, shrimp, sweet potato, fish, pork, rice, vegetables and fruit.  Lots of food.  A tour of the nearby Hang Sung Sot caves was on the agenda after lunch, where we ran into Derek and Jackie and the Irish girls.  Once back on the boat, Bill wanted to kayak in the bay but I wasn't up for it so he went with Ben, Michelle and Cass and the rest of us tailed them in a bamboo boat being maneuvered by one of the boat staff.  We went into a protected cove surrounded by the impressive Karst mountains of the bay.  There were monkeys living on these and we watched them scurry around the trees for awhile before going back to the boat as night fell.  Another many course meal more substantial than the lunch awaited us. 

Tried to do a bit of night fishing off the boat but seemed that nothing was biting so we turned in for a relaxing sleep.  The winds picked up during the night and the next day after breakfast we had to forgo our planned trip to another island as the dock was destroyed in the high winds.  Instead we cruised around the bay for awhile and then it was time to go back to the harbor as our overnight train to Hue awaits.

 

         

This time we were in a train with four bunk compartments and we shared with Pete and Irene.  Bill had some noodles, I had a couple beers and it was time to sleep.  Or try to, this train made lots of stops and Pete managed to snore all night long.  I gave up at sunrise and read for a bit.  It didn't help that I was picking up Bill's cold and the weather was rainy.

With a pocketful of tissues I braved the rain and sniffles to accompany the group out to Thien Mu Pagoda and the tomb of Minh Mang.  The overcast, rainy day leant a gloominess that seemed appropriate for tomb viewing and visiting a pagoda built to honor a "fairy woman".  Or maybe I was just sick.  We were lucky enough to witness a ceremony of monks at the Pagoda, although we did not know the significance we could still enjoy the beauty of the chanting.

In any case I chose to sit out the afternoon wandering and dinner.  After a lunch of Pho I just hunkered down with an electric heater and a book in the hotel room.  Bill went out and shot some photos around town and joined the group for dinner.

 

         

The next morning we met up with our guide from yesterday, Bop (they just make up these names) at the Citadel or Imperial City.  This was the enclosure around the Purple Forbidden City, home of the Nguyen imperial family.  The building began in 1804 and though damaged by cyclones over the years remained impressive until the American bombing in 1968 flattened most of it.  The grounds and gates and remaining buildings are still quite impressive.  The architecture is very reminiscent of the Chinese Forbidden City in Bejing.  The Vietnamese are reconstructing many of the buildings and though they will no doubt be impressive the newer materials and style will change the feeling of the place.  At least it wasn't raining.

We spent the entire morning touring the huge Citadel grounds before grabbing snacks for our long afternoon bus ride though the country-side to Hoi An.  We stopped at Hai Van Pass for a view of the ocean as we crossed over the Annamite Mountain range.  Later, the group wanted to stop at "China Beach", a stretch of beach near DaNang where Americans would R & R during the Vietnam war and the setting for a late 1980's ABC TV drama series.  It was pretty un-dramatic piece of beach and soon we were on our way into the town of Hoi An.

 

         

Hoi An has to be my favorite of the cities we visited in Vietnam.  The Old Quarter was fun to wander around with the river running through the middle of town and lots of cafes, lantern shops, tailor shops and a large local market that was ever changing throughout the day.  Everyone split up that afternoon; some getting fitted for clothes, some having shoes made, some looking for a place to kick back with a beer.  Bill and I took a long walking tour on our own seeing the sites along the Thu Bon River; checking out the Japanese covered bridge; poking our head into shops and enjoying a beer and peanuts in a small riverside cafe. 

Everyone met up for dinner at a place Lek surprised us with.  The name was Bale Well.  The name comes from an ancient well famous in the Hoi An area.  Many people get their water from this well as they believe there is no aluminum in it.  In any case the place was fantastic.  As soon as you sit down they start bringing out platters of spring rolls, lettuce and miscellaneous greens, pickled cabbage and carrots, rice paper wrappers and tons of pork on sticks.  As long as you keep eating the food keeps coming.  The ladies working there kept coming around and making wraps for all the men.  Lots of smiling and laughing and everyone filling up on the Vietnamese version of pork tacos.

That night was an important night for Hoi An, a full moon.  The entire Old Quarter was lit only by lanterns, no electric lights, small fires were burned at curbsides to honor ancestors, candles were released into the river for luck and the streets were strewn with rice.  It was festive and fun.

 

     

We decided to head down to the market in the early morning to see them set up and hopefully see the arriving fishermen.  Ingrid met us in the lobby at 5:30AM and we meandered down to the dock, in the rain, where the market was starting their morning set up.  There were noodle stalls and many many vegetable stalls and out on the concrete dock it was fish and stingrays and shrimp.  We even some women cutting up and grinding fish and pounding it into fish paste.

  Click on this fish for a video:

As you might expect it didn't smell especially good in this part of the market.  It was early and we decided to have a coffee as we watched the morning progress and were invited to share a table with a couple at a little coffee stand.  We shared their tea, had some strong coffee and smiled a lot.  Communication being only through nods and grins.  They seemed very pleased by our company and happy when we asked for a photo.

We were scheduled for a cooking class later in the afternoon so Bill and I set out to the bank, had a relaxing boat ride down the river, wandered around some areas we hadn't seen yet, grabbed some beer and fries in a cafe by the river and just generally enjoyed our day.

 

   

Joining us for the cooking class were Kate, Wiebke, Doerte, Diane, Victoria, Cass, Ben and Michelle and of course our instructor "Le".  We started at the market picking out some vegetables for the class and discovering Le's unique ability as a performer, she was a showman worthy of much more than a cooking school.  She had nicknames for everyone, continually had us laughing and still managed to teach us a thing or two about Vietnamese cooking.  There was lots of "chop chop chop" and "stir stir stir'.  We made a substantial dinner of sweet and sour chicken soup, deep fried spring rolls, marinated tuna wrapped in banana leaves, a fabulous green papaya salad and eggplant in a clay pot. 

I had to buy one of the aprons as a souvenir and we received a cookbook with all the recipes.  It was great fun all around.

 

     

On our last day in Hoi An we decided to rent bicycles and ride out of town to the beach, about 5 Kilometers away.  It was an easy ride on cruiser bikes and the weather cooperated by not raining.  We walked along the beach, watched some round boat fishermen, had some tea and dumplings in a beachside restaurant and rode back to town.  One last walk around town and we visited the silk factory, watched children play at a school and watched the daily interaction amongst the locals at the market and along the river.  Here, just like in Hanoi, people have no problem shopping without getting off their motorcycles.  We wandered into the interior of the market and stumbled across a Karaoke event going on in the midst of the meat market.  The next day would be a flight back to the hustle and bustle of a big city as we leave Hoi An's ambiance behind and head for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

 

     

The flight was uneventful and we moved from plane to van to hotel.  After settling in, Lek took us on a quick walking tour around town, past the Opera house, to see the famed Central Post Office that was built by the French in the early 20th century.  It was designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.  An impressive building that is a working post office to this day.  Across the street is the Notre-Dame Basilica, the cities main church, beautifully lit up at night.  Ho Chi Minh City has as many motorcycles as Hanoi and we didn't think that was possible.  Crossing the streets can be a challenge.  We followed up our tour with dinner at Nha Hang Ngon, where I got photos of the menu with selections of "False Dog-Meat" - prepared with pork, the drinks were nice but the food was just so-so.

 

The following day we ventured out of town to tour the Cu Chi tunnels and get some more of that "American" war history.  Arriving at the site you immediately realize this is one of Vietnam's prime tourist spot.  Guides uniformed in green fatigues are leading tourists around and explaining various things in various languages.  We make our way to an open sided theater area where a large TV screen shows a short film.  With background sounds of bombs dropping and machine guns the narrator says:

"Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees ... Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside ... Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children ... The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die."

The narrator continues along this vein throughout the video.  We had to buy a copy to bring home.  Our guide described the area and tunnels with the assistance of large maps and a cross section display of tunnels.  He explained how they lived, what the various tunnels were for, how they were able to cook without smoke billowing out a hole above that would give away their location, etc.  There were rooms for school, rooms for sleeping, communal rooms and a 75 mile maze of tunnels running between.  The tunnels were crawling with bugs and malaria deaths were second only to battle deaths.  There were demonstrations of the tools used to dig the tunnels, the types of food they prepared, stripped down tanks, bomb remnants and big holes marked as bomb craters.  Along a trail through the tunnel area are various entrances and examples of how they were disguised as well as many demonstrations of the simple yet effective traps set by the Viet Cong to kill anyone who happened to stumble upon a tunnel opening.

We crawled through a section of tunnel that has been enlarged and had dim lights added for tourists.  We chose the shorter tunnel, Bill was disappointed and would have gladly stumbled through the longer one.  I felt uncomfortable enough in the short distance we crawled and had no desire to continue further.  Click on the photo below to see a video of Bill climbing out of a hidden tunnel entrance:

At the end of the tour Bill bought bullets to shoot a  M60 Machine gun in a makeshift firing range that was adjacent to the gift shop, $1 a bullet.  We were handed ear protection but not until entering the firing area and people were shooting all around us.  It was incredibly loud and those 10 bullets lasted about 10 seconds.  Click on the photo album to see lots of photos of the tunnels.

 

     

We had a free afternoon back in the city and accompanied by Kate set out after lunch to the War Remnants Museum (recently renamed from American war Crimes Museum) and the Reunification Palace.

The next day was a full day tour of the Mekong Delta.  We rode in a large comfortable canoe through the canals.  At one point we met up with some Vietnamese ladies that would give us a ride into the smaller canals in a small canoe they stand in and push along with poles.  These little Vietnamese ladies must have been in incredible shape from pushing around a boat full of tourists all day.  There were houses along the shore, built half in the water on stilts but many of the people here live in house boats with small canoes for visiting the floating markets or fishing.

We stopped at a small village for lunch.  Kate and I were not hungry enough for the Mekong fish lunch and had some vegetable soup while the rest of the group shared the main attraction of a river fish battered up, fried whole and served upright on wooden stands.  Lunch was followed by a bicycle ride through the village on some wobbly bikes going over small bridges.  Wiebke managed to fall trying to take photos while riding and came up without a scratch or a hair out of place.  I was not so lucky.  Coming back along the trail I tipped over, jumped away from my bike as it went sliding down to the creek, lost my camera out of the basket (I would discover and retrieve it later) and generally looked completely awkward.

After the bike ride from hell (or so it seemed to me) we were presented with traditional singing and the acting of skits by some of the restaurant/lodge people. 

We made another stop at a village where they demonstrated making coconut candy, puffed rice and salt.  We were treated with some tea and samples of various candies and rice bars.

 

     

Back in Ho Chi Minh City that evening, Bill and I walked down to the night market.  There are a couple of busy streets that they close off at night and turn into a pedestrian market of restaurants and stalls of assorted things for sale.  We got to the area before the market was set up and sat at a tiny table at a sidewalk food vendor and had a beer.  It was lucky for us as we were able to watch the amazing transformation from busy street to a market complete with fully functioning restaurants in a matter of minutes.  It was an incredible sight.

We wandered around the market, had some food, bought some (cheap!) clothes and relaxed on our last night in Vietnam.  The next morning we would be boarding a public bus for the overland trip into Cambodia.

Just click on the Cambodia link above to continue following our journey and adventures.  Below is a photo album full of photos from Vietnam.