We took a short flight on the lovely Lao airlines over to Hanoi, Vietnam. There we were greeted by a cacophony of horns honking, lights flashing, and vendors pushing to cross paths with us. It was a total shock for me after laid back Laos. On our shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel in Hanoi, our guide Limny gave us a run down of various security measures we should be taking now that we were in Vietnam. They included wearing our packs on our front side, not pulling out all of our cash at once, carrying only what was necessary, locking our luggage in our rooms, and making sure our cameras were attached to us at all times.
I appreciated knowing, but I was pretty apprehensive the first time I stepped out of the hotel. I reduced my load down to the bare essentials of some cash and my camera and stepped out the door.
We were only staying in Hanoi overnight this time, but I knew I would be back in a few days after a brief overnight stay in Halong Bay. We all went together and had a nice meal in a narrow and crowded local restaurant.
One thing of note throughout Vietnam is that all of the buildings are really tall and skinny. After a little research, I discovered that street-facing property has traditionally been sought after so that a small storefront can be created at street level, with the family living in the stories above. As a result, the proximity to the street increases the cost of the property to the point where plots are only a few meters wide. The solution to these small plots of land is to build upwards. It’s a common sight to see an exceptionally narrow, ten-story building.
After dinner a few of us decided to grab a beer on the local curb. No, I didn’t mistype “Pub”, literally we had a beer on the curb. One of the things that could be considered traditional or, at the very least, common here in Vietnam is drinking beers with friends on short little chairs covering the sidewalks and streets. Apparently it is not legal, but only loosely enforced.
At one point when we were sitting there, the police wagon showed up with a siren (which really wasn’t that noticeable over the din of the city anyway) and the business owners scrambled to move everyone out of their seats on the street and cram us all up on the sidewalk. Once the police left, the seats were put back out and we were invited to sit back down in the street. They told us the cops wouldn’t be back for a few hours, but they were wrong, they came roaring back about 20 minutes later and the game of musical chairs began anew.
I was on complete sensory overload. If you weren’t dodging a vendor, you were dodging a motorbike flying by. Where I come from the horn on a bike or car is a rarely used tool to say, “You’re a %$&#ing jerk” when driving. Here in Hanoi, I am pretty sure it makes up about 30% of the communication on Hanoi’s streets. From my brief study there, I believe it can mean any of the following:
- “Watch out!”
- “Hurry up!”
- “I’m bigger than you!”
- “I’m faster than you!”
- “I like making noise!”
- “How are you? I’m fine!”
- “Have a nice day!”
The next morning we got up and took a minibus over to Halong Bay. You have seen the pictures of this beautiful place before I am sure. Per wikipedia: The bay consists of a dense cluster of over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands (although locals claim there are only 1,969 as this is the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death), each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves.
I was really looking forward to the spectacular views and monumental islands. But when we arrived, we saw a whole lot of fog. Boring old run of the mill fog with an occasional silhouette of a mountain in the background. The fog lightened up a few times long enough to grab a few pictures, but they were mediocre at best. We sailed around for a short time and arrived at some caves that we were told are “the most spectacular” of the caves. They were actually pretty magnificent, I have to admit!
These ancient caves were carved out by water and striking rock structures and stalagmites were left behind. I have been in many caves filled with stalagmites prior to this one, but never one of this size. It was HUGE. It’s a really good thing that it is so big because otherwise they would not have been able to fit the slew of tourists running through there. It took some patience and maneuvering to get good pictures. After the dissappointment of not being able to snap pictures of the mountain islands outside, I was determined but only partially rewarded.
We got back onboard the boat and were offered an opportunity to kayak for the sale price of only $7 per person for a double kayak. It was raining and a little cold to go kayaking (besides the fact you couldn’t see anything 15 feet in front of your face). So most of us decided to stay back, but the four guys and our fearless leader Limny decided they wanted to go explore.
We watched the local guide bailing water out of the bottom of each of the kayaks as they lowered each passenger. After a quick picture, they all set out for a short trip. The rest of us found comfy places to read, write postcards, and chat while they were gone. After a while without any sign of the kayakers, I started to worry. The sun (the small amount you could see) was starting to get low in the sky and they weren’t back yet. My inner mama bear was concerned but didn’t have anyone to ask since the boat crew spoke no english and our local guide and Limny were all with them on the water.
Turns out that they had gotten lost in the fog, so I was right to be concerned. They did make it back finally just before the sun went down, but were pretty tired by the time they got back and dried off. The local guide had lost his way and could not find the boat but refused to admit it and kept insisting that he knew the way. Ha! Something about saving face…but silly in my opinion. Still was glad to have them all back on board safe and sound.
We had a lovely dinner back on the boat and shared several bottles of wine. After several rowdy games of UNO and some really, really bad charades, we went to bed.
We woke up the next morning to more fog, but it had lifted just enough to glimpse the sun through the fog. We snapped a couple of pictures and headed back to port for our minibus trip back to Hanoi.
We got back mid-day, grabbed a bite to eat and then set out to catch a few sights around the city. This city is somewhat of an enigma to me. Less than two blocks from small shops selling “Gucci” watches for about $50 was a actual Gucci store. It felt like a blend of the crazed asian pace (think of about a thousand motorbikes per minute) with the cosmopolitan underbelly of San Francisco. Generally many cities of Hanoi’s size could be said to have a seedy underbelly of commerce. Hanoi puts it right out there for all to see and the legit businesses almost seem to be an aside to the main show. It gave it a strange atmosphere, but after you got the rhythm of it the streets became less intimidating and it started to grow on you.
We took a brief walk over to a picturesque lake called Ho Tay. As we walked around the lake, there were dozens of couples taking engagement photos. Talk about great people watching! It was a nice slice of life in Hanoi with workers eating lunch, tourists wandering around, businessmen and women hustling to cut through the park, and a few old women gossiping on a park bench.
Once we reached the far end of the park we took a brief detour over to a beautiful French colonial style 1911 Opera House located in a posh area of town. The only one of us brave enough to cross the street to get to the opera house was Tim and I am pretty sure he took his life into his hands trying. It was great entertainment for the rest of us, and he got a good laugh out of it! This city was much like Tim’s personality – slightly crazy and constantly moving around. But seriously he fit right in and almost seemed to thrive in the chaos of the city. Although, I have to admit, he wandered off frequently. “Oooh…shiny!” and poof – he’s gone. “Where’s Tim?” was a constant theme of the afternooon.
After tracking down Tim, we continued on our walking tour over to the Catholic Cathedral on the other side of the lake. There we found lots of tourists and people sitting in the streets drinking beers in the hot afternoon.
We stopped for a beer and then went back to the hotel to get ready for the evening. We had tickets to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. It sounded really cool, and started out fairly interesting. As the show wore on the shrill sound of the music wore me down to the point where I was ready to bolt out the door. Taking a survey of the whole group you would hear reviews ranging from “Excellent” to “Pure Torture”. I fell somewhere in between those two responses, but I wouldn’t say its something that just has to be seen if you ever visit Hanoi.
The water puppets were mostly choreographed and moved around in a pool of water. On stage right there were a group of traditional musicians playing music in time with the puppets. Seeing the unique instruments was very entertaining, but after about an hour it ceased to be entertaining and I felt like I was being forced to sit through a Celine Dion concert (sorry Jennie…). Either way, I was a little relieved when it was over.
The next morning we got up early and went on a whirl wind tour of the Ho Chi Minh complex which features his embalmed and preserved body, his house, cars, and a museum. He is viewed as a hero and is very revered within Vietnam. A picture of his face is hung above most people’s mantles only to be flanked by pictures of their family and is described as being the father of all of the children of Vietnam. He wanted to be cremated when he died, but instead was embalmed and placed on display so that all of the vietnamese could come visit him. It bears a large resemblance to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow.
There were huge lines of people waiting to take a walk through his tomb in silence and most of them were locals. They had separate lines for the Vietnamese and foreigners so that the locals could get priority. Only foreigners have to buy tickets. After a brief walk around his previous home we continued on to see the one pillar pagoda and some of the group went through the Ho Chi Minh museum. We then went to a nice restaurant for a traditional vietnamese lunch and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for our overnight train.
Ugh. The overnight train was not my fondest memory to recall on this trip. This train didn’t hold a candle to the one that we took in Thailand. It was FILTHY. The walls were brownish – but not because they were supposed to be, but because they had probably never been cleaned. I used as many antibacterial sheets as I could, went through an entire bottle of hand sanitizer, and still felt skeezy just being there. I threw away the sleep sack that I used in the train.
The quarters were much tighter and I was sharing a small cabin with Tim, Mike, and Craig. To lessen the annoyance of the train and hopefully to help us sleep, Conor joined us and we played some drinking games. We all had more than our fair share of beers, but it didn’t overcome the noise, heat, and general filth of the train when it came time to sleep. I passed the time trying my hardest to fall asleep, but was never quite successful, so I departed the train a little grumpy in Hue. We headed straight for the hotel where I took a shower and used an entire bar of soap trying to overcome the disgusting feeling of the train. Blech.
No rest for the wicked! After a quick breakfast and a shower we went right back out to see the city of Hue. I would have liked to have had more time there as it was a great little city. I felt awful having to trudge through it after not getting any sleep the night before, but the sights were amazing.
Hue was once the capital of the entire country. The jewel of the city is a walled fortress and palace called the Imperial city. Most of it was destroyed during the Vietnam War (or the American war as it is called here) by US bombings. The city was made a UNESCO site in 1993. The buildings that still remain are being restored and preserved. They are rebuilding the destroyed buildings as time and money allow.
We took a brief bus ride over to Thien Mu Pagoda where we saw the car once owned by “The Venerable Thich Quang Duc”. This car was driven into a busy downtown Saigon intersection by this Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk. There he set himself on fire and burned himself to death June 11th 1963. Duc was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the regime. Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his renowned photograph of the monk’s death.
It was a shocking thought that someone would burn themselves in protest, and I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture. I needed a little bit lighter moment when we boarded a boat on the Perfume River to go to our next site.
We shortly arrived at the tomb of Tu Duc. Wow – how much more death monuments can I see here in Vietnam? At least the grounds were pretty. The tomb of Tu Duc, the ‘poet Emperor’, is set in an elegant garden with a magnificent lake and pavilion complex. The centerpiece of the tomb is really simple despite the lavish opulence of his reign (it’s really just a monument – he was buried elsewhere to thwart grave robbers). My camera died while we were walking around, so I only have a few pictures of this place. It was huge and I found it very ironic that he spent most of his time there while he was still living and wasn’t actually even buried there. We headed back to the hotel and I went to sleep almost immediately after a long two days without any rest. Finally…rest for the wicked!
I woke up the next morning wishing that we had more time in Hue, but thats the curse of being on a pre-planned tour like this. I would have liked to explore for at least a couple of more days, but it was not in the cards. We boarded a bus to Hue that morning and took a short drive over to this wonderful port city called Hoi An.
I immediately fell in love with Hoi An and wasted no time going to explore. One of the most prevalent things Hoi An is known for is their tailors. Show them a picture of any item of clothing you can find on the internet or in one of their catalogs and they will make it for you. This includes suits, shoes, handbags, and just about anything you can come up with.
There are over 300 tailors in this small town and the biggest difference between them is their fabrics. The more selection they have, the more expensive it is. I was (in a very small way) wishing I was headed home after this trip because I would have had about a dozen pairs of shoes made, but alas, I have another 10 months of traveling ahead of me and didn’t want to ship everything home.
I did decide to have a few skirts and casual t-shirts made in a non-wrinkling fabric they had so they took my measurements and told me to return the next day.
The whole group got together and had a wonderful dinner that night. We all excitedly talked about the clothes we were having made for us and what we had planned to do during our three days in Hoi An.
The next morning Mike and I rented a couple of bikes and set out with no real plan to explore the city a bit more in depth. We rode around for a few hours. We explored the islet adjacent to the main drag of buildings in Hoi An and then found ourselves in the local Market filled with good looking produce.
There we joined up briefly with Conor, Tim, and Craig but found out that we had explored the exact opposite areas and so we parted ways again. We made a plan to meet up for lunch and then continued to ride into the rural areas surrounding Hoi An. We were able to see people carving beautiful doors and windows, catching fish, and just enjoying the morning. One thing that was a little unique was the loudspeakers scattered throughout the area playing vietnamese music and occasionally making an announcement. You can hear a bit of it in this video.
After a few more visits to the tailor shop and some quick R&R at the hotel, Conor, Tim, Craig, Mike and I met up for the evening. Hoi An is so beautiful at night! There were lantern vendors on every corner and all the bridges were lit up with more lanterns and light sculptures. We landed for dinner at an absolutely lovely restaurant called the Bamboo Buddha. They had a decent selection of wine and a menu filled with creative culinary delights. It was one of the best meals I have had since leaving the US in January. They had a set menu and I chose to have gorgonzola and prosciutto bruschetta for a starter, followed by Australian beef skewers, and a brownie and vanilla ice cream for dessert. We had a nice French Cab and a Chilean Merlot (still not a Merlot fan, but it was alright). The atmosphere was also pleasant as we were on a second floor room overlooking the street filled with vendors.
It is now my last day in Hoi An. I went and picked up the last of my clothes from the tailor and found a riverside cafe from which to write this post. So thats all I have to share for now! I will write more in a few days. Tomorrow morning we head to Saigon for a two night stay before passing over into Cambodia. I am having an absolute blast and look forward to the rest of the adventures!