Canyons, a Crazy House, and Croissants

Dalat, Vietnam:

Greetings from the Future!

Our adventure in Vietnam during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon continues. As we were only able to book one night in a hotel in Hoi An, an abbreviated visit to this beach town eventually passed as there were absolutely no other hotels within 100 miles (I canvassed the city, I called people, I scoured the internet … nada), so we lit off for the Central Highlands. The French colonizers of Vietnam seem to have had the right idea about dealing with the climate: set up numerous, quaint, hill stations within access to the hotter lowland cities in order to get some respite from the oppressive heat. Dalat is one such place wherein the French built a hill station (See also our earlier trip to Sapa). The weather is mild, there are hills, colonial architecture … they grow strawberries … they make wine with said strawberries. It is gorgeous.

After hopping off the sleeper bus in Dalat , we went directly to the hotel I had booked. Despite booking a room and paying a deposit, we were out of luck. Keeping in mind that we went through a similar song-and-dance in Hoi An before hopping on a 20-hour bus ride, I reacted with some understandable ire. Four letter words and praise of the decisions of Robert Macnamera were employed along with much chest pounding. Things cooled in the conversation when I explained to the in-keeper that I would be keeping their family awake all night by drinking beer and eating soup in their den. While I was busy venting testosterone to non-English speakers, Maria found other lodging at “Backpacker’s Paradise,” which is run by a bunch of saints who agreed to give Maria a bed in their dorm and give me a cot on the floor. We were then bumped up to a private room the next night!

In all fairness to the hotel that reneged on our reservation, some people are born insufferable jerks who lie and steal as a matter of course.

That said, we bounced back and had a great time here!

After all of that excitement, what is there to do in Dalat?

Outdoor Stuff:

Vietnam’s healthy tourism circuit has numerous well-established locations for specific purposes: Hanoi is the capital and where you dodge mopeds and wave at McCain’s flight suit; you can check out the caves in Phong Nha, hill tribes in Sapa, the old capital in Hue with a “Forbidden City”, and you can buy yourself a cheap suit in Hoi An. Dalat is the outdoor recreation mecca of Vietnam. Numerous outfitters catering to the banana pancake eating, backpacker set are available for mountain biking, rafting, trekking to local villages, rock climbing, and canyoning.

Maria and I went with Highland Sport Travel on a canyoning trip. Part rappelling, part rock climbing, part whatever you call that thing where you jump off a cliff and swim around … this was tons of fun.

Highland Sport Travel’s guides exuded professionalism and inspired confidence among the wholly foreign group we were with. The idea of convincing people, in a second language, of the fact that, “hey … all this equipment works, and also you need to listen to my commands to stay safe,” seemed a daunting task but was handled perfectly. Most of the guides had studied English in college and all were attentive to the guests. The trip was a blast and the guides did a great job, even dedicating an additional guide to helping a 10-year-old German girl through some of the more interesting aspects of the trip. (That last sentence might make this trip seem decidedly less hardcore, but I should mention that this was an unusually brave 10-year-old whose father declined to jump off a cliff that his daughter hopped off. I’m imagining there was some awkward dinner conversation that followed in that family.)

We jumped off cliffs, rappelled down waterfalls, and generally had a great day. The entire trip — which took all day, included van transport to and from the canyon, a full lunch, and two guides per our eight person group — cost $25 per person.

Baked Goods: 

The French left the people of Indochina with a bizarre legacy. You can find western toilets with these little spray-hose bidets attached in fairly rural bathrooms across the region. All of the countries of Indochina, as if in a middle finger to their previous colonizers, are communist (Cambodia has elections but the last time the Communist Party lost there was a violent coup, which assured that their Prime Minister, who has been in power since the late 80s, remained in power). Oh …and the baked goods.

While baguettes are on offer throughout Vietnam, I was suspect of cakes, cupcakes, and other desserts. Maria and I found an enormous bakery in downtown Dalat called Lien Hoa. For less than $5, we purchased enough cupcakes and chocolate filled products to give a small elephant diabetes. I’m not talking a dozen doughnuts. I’m talking, “let’s skip breakfast tomorrow,” kind of eating. It was glorious.

Dalat’s Crazy House:

Imagine, if you will, Pee Wee’s Playhouse during construction. A weird, mishmash of a tree-fort, cartoon imagery brought to life, and exposed rebar from walls where, most likely, the whole thing will be expanded. You can get lost here, and I’m sure you could fall and die here if you wandered around in the dark. The “Crazy House” is the design of Dang Viet Nga, a Russian educated, Vietnamese architect, whose designs have previously been destroyed for being interpreted as conveying anti-communist ideals. Interestingly, Dang Viet Nga’s father was Ho Chi Minh’s successor, which allowed for some liberal skirting of the rules with regards to building codes. It costs about two dollars to visit and is well worth a walk through.

Check out our photos from the activities mentioned above, as well as some pics from a hot-pot dinner out with some friends we made at Backpacker’s Paradise, including two Canadians, a New Zealander, a Finnish guy, an Argentine, and a Brazilian:

The Beaches of Vietnam

Greetings from the future!

After exploring the caves of Phong Nha, Chris and I were looking to do a bit of relaxing above ground. For this we headed to our next two destinations where some of the best beaches in Vietnam awaited: Hue and Hoi An.

The city of Hue (pronounced Hway) holds great historical significance in Vietnam. It served as the former capital under the Nguyen Dynasty Empire, the last dynasty in Vietnam, from 1802-1945. This time period overlapped with the French occupation of Vietnam (1858-1954). Though the French retained the Nguyen Empire, the French controlled the throne during this time. This changed in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist movement declared Vietnam’s independence and the last emperor abdicated the throne. This marked the beginning of Vietnam’s war with France, which lasted from 1945-1954.

The French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954 and the war came to an end with the signing of a peace treaty, called the Geneva Accord, the terms of which divided the country into two: North and South. The peacetime didn’t last long for Vietnam, as fighting between the South and North soon broke out. The U.S. sent advisors to aid the anti-communist South in their fight against the communist North, and this then segued into sending U.S. troops beginning in 1964, which marked the start of what is called the American War here in Vietnam as opposed to what we refer to as the Vietnam War back home. Hue’s location in the middle of Vietnam, between North and South, made it the city closest to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war.

Those last two paragraphs allude to a dense and complicated period of history, which, quite obviously, very much involved the U.S. Being of the post-Vietnam war generation, my schooling didn’t cover this piece of U.S. history in great detail. Most of my generation’s understanding of the Vietnam War likely either comes from family members that were involved or movies, e.g. Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. I believe Chris aims to unpack this history in a later post, but for now if you want to read more about key events in Vietnam’s modern history, I’ll refer you to this simplified timeline from the BBC.

Bottom line, there is a lot of historical sight seeing to be done in Hue. Chris and I planned on partaking in extensive historical tourism while in Ho Chi Minh City, so we focused our stay in Hue more on leisure. After all, we’d been traveling for a month and a half and had yet to hit a beach. I was craving some serious beach time, and for that, Hue delivered.

The beach is about 10 miles from downtown Hue, where we were staying. In fact, many backpackers don’t even realize there is a beach in Hue and wrongly deem Hue a rather dull town. We had been advised by travelers we met in Phong Nha that Hue had a beautiful beach, and we are grateful for the tip.

We arrived to our hotel in Hue in the morning. We ate a quick breakfast and set about figuring out how to traverse these 10 miles. First, we attempted to make the trip on bicycles, but the bicycles available to rent were too small for Chris, a re-occurring problem for him in this part of the world. At this point, we decided to do it the Southeast Asia way: by motorbike.

This marked the first time we rented a motorbike on our trip. It’s a common affair for backpackers in Southeast Asia. You need only do a quick survey of backpackers to notice the distinguishing mark of a muffler burn on the calves of many (get off the bike from the left side!). There are both manual and automatic bikes available; we opted for an automatic. With helmets fastened and fuel in the tank — fuel is obtained from roadside stands where gasoline is stored in soda bottles — we embarked for the beach!

After two wrong turns and several attempts to ask for directions to the beach — picture Chris and me wildly gesticulating different swimming strokes — we got set on the right path. [Side note: when Vietnamese people don’t know how to help you or don’t know what you’re talking about, they do this hand gesture where they shake their extended and open hand from side to side, somewhat like the hand gesture we would use to indicate if something was just “so so.” From our interpretation this gesture can mean either simply “I don’t know” or “I can’t help” or when paired with an expression of irritation verging on anger, “Leave me the hell alone,” and “Why are you addressing me in English, we speak Vietnamese here, idiot.”]

After about 20 minutes, we arrived to a private beach called, “Beach Bar Hue,” which was associated with a hotel and bar with the same name. [Another side note: On our way to the beach, we passed by a cemetery, which at first I didn’t recognize as a cemetery because of the brightly colored temple-like shrines that serve as grave markers — much different from the muted gray and black gravestones that fill our cemeteries back home.] We had to pay the equivalent of $5 to access the beach, for which we received a voucher for the same amount, which could be used for food or drink; it was a good deal and permitted entrance to a beautiful and quiet beach without too many people. We spent two days at the beach and would return to the city in the evening where we had the option of quaint cafes, a single late-night bar called “Brown Eyes” and ample street food options.

It was while in Hue that we gradually noticed the celebratory decorations adorning the city center and growing crowds of domestic tourists. Even more apparent to us were the rise in prices of accommodations and motorbike rentals. Our hotel staff alerted us that a holiday was approaching; it would last a week. What was the holiday celebrating, we asked in ignorance. The staff awkwardly danced around this question …

As it turned out, we unknowingly stumbled upon the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Americans, the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam … oh that holiday.

Traveling in Vietnam as an American brings with it some mixed feelings … a heightened sense of national awareness, remorse for something that happened before I was born, and admiration for hardships overcome. Tourism is the backbone of Vietnam’s economy, and people are nothing but nice and accommodating to American tourists. Still, it’s hard to overlook the myriad reasons the Vietnamese have to be less than welcoming to us Americans. Sure, the war is in past … but is it? Landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs) continue to kill and injure people everyday — not just in Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos as well. The aftermath of Agent Orange continues to plague the Southern Vietnamese. I’ll write more on this when we get to Ho Chi Minh City, but for now I’ll say that traveling during the anniversary heightened this awareness.

On the practical side of things, it made booking travel and accommodations extremely challenging. For instance, twice we showed up to a hotel where we had a reservation and they had just simply given our room away, no problem. As was the case when we arrived in Hoi An. This was a low point.

We arrived to our guesthouse to find two British couples already in a heated argument with the staff, and soon discovered we’d all suffered the same fate: reservations but no rooms. Luckily, all six of us were able to find lodging at a brand new hotel with rates way cheaper than they could have charged since they had just opened for business that very day, so things worked out in the end.

It’s worth noting that the garment industry is a big tourist draw in Hoi An. For a comparatively cheap price to what you’d pay back home, you can choose your own fabric and materials and get suits, dresses, shoes and accessories made. Though we thought about doing this, we ultimately decided we didn’t want to get something nice made only to stuff it in our packs and travel with it for the next two months. You can also ship things home, but it sounded like too much of a hassle. It should also be noted that there are other great beach spots in Vietnam, including Nha Trang and Phu Quoc Island, but we skipped out on those because there is only so much you can see and do when traveling. Besides, other great beaches in Cambodia and Thailand still await, so all in good time!

One last thing before I go for now — I want to sing the praises of a cafe called Fusion in Hoi An. It featured a menu that seemed made for me. I had a green juice (cucumber, celery, ginger, spinach and cayenne pepper) and a watercress salad with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and mango. I felt right at home.

Here are our photos from Hue and Hoi An:

 

Phong Nha

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

One gorgeous natural phenomena deserves yet another and we are here to document as many as possible for you. (With run-on sentences.)

After a brief (45 minute) pit stop back in Hanoi, we grabbed a night bus for a roughly seven hour trip to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park. [Note to readers: If you are traveling in northern Vietnam and are not riding a motorcycle, you’re beholden to bus routes, which all pass through Hanoi.]

Phong Nha is a new addition to Vietnam’s tourist trail owing to the fact that, six years ago, the biggest ticket in the area was hidden … underground.

In 1991, a local villager named Ho Kahn discovered the mouth of Son Doong cave, now recognized as the largest cave in the world. Mr. Ho runs a coffee shop in Phong Nha village today and is something of a local celebrity. As the entrance of the cave requires significant gear and technical experience to traverse, exploration waited until a British team could arrive in 2009. For those with a thick enough wallet, $3,000 will allow you a trip through Son Doong via Oxalis Adventures.

Our budget did not allow for this particular journey, but fortunately, the same bedrock allowing for the creation of Son Doong cave, is present throughout this part of Asia.

Karst topography: (There are apparently several people with advanced degrees in geology peeking in here from time to time, if they’d like to add anything, I’ll gladly add it here.)

We have all seen the photos of knife-edged mountains, which bring to mind the stereotypic beauty of southern Asia. Green pillars of earth and jungle towering out of a field of rice paddies with a prominence altogether different from the Rockies or Appalachians. Sometimes these mountains are so abrupt they look as if they were drawn by a child. Triangles? Really?

The shape of these mountains are indicative of limestone or “karst” topography. Maria’s earlier post on our trip to Halong Bay offers numerous, gorgeous photos of these phenomena. Surface rainfall erodes limestone at sharp angles while water makes way into the crevices of limestone, creating underground caves. Those of you who have visited the panhandle of Florida are likely familiar with the numerous sinkholes, lakes, and springs, which dot the landscape due to the limestone bedrock. Some of those aforementioned lakes (Lake Jackson, in Tallahassee, FL) have a tendency to actually “disappear” from time to time when another layer of limestone breaks open, thereby draining the lake.

A drive through Phong Nha — like many other villages from Yunnan province, China all the way to Thailand — boasts glorious vistas. Like many other small towns in Vietnam, Phong Nha is basically one street, with a handful of places a visitor can sleep for the night. A bike ride around town (video of a trip we took) is ridiculously pretty. That said, Phong Nha is set apart from other post-card-pretty towns in Southeast Asia due to one’s ability to pick and choose among a litany of outfitters for caving trips. The aforementioned Oxalis is run by some of the Brits who originally traversed Son Doong and are the gold standard.

Maria and I took a trip through the stunning Paradise Cave, a round trip trek of roughly eight kilometers, all of which was underground, lit with nothing but headlamps. There were only two other guests on our trip along with two guides, making the experience that much more exciting. While I took video of our trip, I have unfortunately come to the realization that, unlike in cartoons, you can’t actually film the eyes and teeth of your friends in pitch darkness.

Historic Significance:

Phong Nha, located in the midst of a mountainous rainforest in western Vietnam, appears lush, untouched, and certainly not a place subjected to a bombing campaign comparable to that seen in the European theater of WWII. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through this area and America’s efforts to cut off supplies for the Viet Cong involved an aerial bombing campaign. The Viet Cong, conversely, combatted these attacks by constantly shifting the location of the HCM Trail. The end result, a huge swath of land along Vietnam’s Cambodian and Laotian border littered with craters and unexploded ordinances. As Phong Nha is a rural area, much of the rainforest swallowed the initial scarring suffered from the war. Unfortunately, the remnants of the war are more readily visible on locals with missing limbs than they are on the landscape.

A Charity Worth Giving To:

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works to remove mines and unexploded ordinances from post-conflict areas. Every day, 12 people are killed or maimed due to explosives left behind from war and, over the past 25 years, MAG has worked in 40 countries to clear unexploded ordinances. To date, they have cleared over 5,522 square kilometers of land. We were told that under their current operating budget, it would take MAG (the only organization removing mines in the area), “10,000 years in order to reach certainty that this area of Vietnam is cleared of unexploded ordinances.”

Places to check out in Phong Nha:

Paradise Cave: We paid around $60 per person for this experience, and it was completely amazing. We spent all day wandering through a completely dark cave which ended in a huge swimming hole, lit by a skylight some 70 meters overhead. My photos and video do not bring justice to the experience, which ranks as one of my favorite Asian outings thus far.

Phong Nha Cave: (We didn’t make it here.) A quick boat ride from downtown Phong Nha, which should run you $5-10 for the whole experience. A dry cave, this can be traversed without any real worry as to your clothing. This cave was actually a hiding place for a flotilla of boats, which served as a make-shift bridge for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Dark Cave: (We didn’t make it here either.) You’ll see a lot of photos of folks ziplining and taking mudbaths and whatnot … this is Dark Cave. There are numerous places offering a dual trip through both Dark Cave and the first kilometer of Paradise Cave. While it looked like a blast, we definitely hit budget after hiring guides for Paradise Cave.

Hang En Cave: (Didn’t make it here either … maybe next time for this one.) Two day treks are run out of numerous outfitters to this cave. While not as big as Son Doong, this trek is somewhere around $200 per person and thereby, decidedly more approachable for a traveler looking for an exciting experience.

Easy Tiger Hostel: This backpacker-friendly hotel offers dorm rooms at a reasonable rate, catering to budget-minded travelers. While we stayed across the street, we found ourselves stopping by the restaurant/ bar on a daily basis to learn about what to do and see in town. The charming and eloquent owner, Seamus, (you’re looking for the Irishman with a mohawk) is clearly working with the intent of being a responsible member of the Phong Nha community. After backpacking for several months, it is very easy to encounter “party hostel” phenomena. Instead of inviting everyone to play beer pong on the roof, Seamus offered information on local history, culture, and charities working to better the area. Seamus holds court every morning at 9 a.m., giving a run-down of all caving tours, local attractions, along with things to be concerned about. Instead of advocating that everyone rent mopeds from him (Phong Nha is mountainous, remote, and presents some dangers to the odd tourist who crashes a motorcycle) he steers people towards both minivan tours along with the less-expensive option of having a local drive a motorcycle for you. Additionally, half of Seamus’s morning speech involves alerting visitors to the problem of UXOs (unexploded ordinances) in Phong Nha. All visitors are made well aware to stay on marked roads and paths and to avoid any off-trail hiking. Additionally, Seamus does a fair amount of fund raising for MAG, who do UXO removal in the area.

The Pub With Cold Beer: This bar/restaurant/shack-in-the-country, allows visitors the chance to select a chicken and kill the chicken if they would like. While part of me morbidly thought I’d like to kill my own lunch, I was actually glad I didn’t do this myself as the woman running the operation (affectionately called “the chicken lady” by everyone in Phong Nha) was able to dispatch our chicken in a manner that involved much less struggle than I would have imagined. The route to this bar is pretty wild and is detailed in the upcoming video. If you are on a motorbike, I would highly advise consulting Seamus about the best (see: most paved) route as we seem to have taken the one where all the roads were made of chocolate milk and Playdough.

Check out our photos from Phong Nha:

Rice Paddies in the Mountains and Dragons in the Sea

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from two popular Vietnam tourist destinations: Sapa and Halong Bay.

First, Sapa:

After two days in Hanoi, we set off for the mountain town of Sapa in northwestern Vietnam near the Chinese border. A very comfortable overnight train — quite contrary to our Shanghai to Hong Kong experience — took us from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai, from which we took an hour shuttle bus to Sapa. The town of Sapa is quite small and tourism is hyper focused on appealing to Western travelers, as we will come to learn is the case for most travel destinations in Vietnam where the tourism industry is a well-oiled machine. The main street is lined with restaurants offering Western food, including an abundance of Italian pizzerias each with drool-inducing photos of pizzas on the menu and signs professing “the best pizza in Sapa,” one after another, but don’t be surprised when what arrives at your table doesn’t look like the photo. Western food is tricky in the East. You try to avoid the temptation because you know 9 times out of 10 you’ll be disappointed, but sometimes you want pizza so freaking bad, you make the leap of faith. In Sapa our pizza attempt left a lot to be desired.

So my point, stick to the Vietnamese cuisine in smaller towns. In big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a different story. Speaking of Vietnamese food, it was a welcome change from Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, there were many Chinese dishes that delighted my palate, but if I had one request of Chinese food in general, it would be, “easy on the grease.” Everything is deep-fried, stir-fried, double-fried … the amount of cooking oil used in the country could fill an ocean. So, Vietnam’s fresh, light, seemingly healthy approach to cooking was refreshing. Ingredients like lemon grass, chili peppers and fish sauce are incorporated into many dishes. And pho, the most popular Vietnamese dish stateside, is actually consumed at breakfast in Vietnam. You can purchase a bowl from any street food vendor for about 15,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese Dong, approximately $0.50 to $1.50. Additionally, bánh mì just means bread, specifically baguettes, and can indicate any type of sandwich. As Chris mentioned in his introductory post, Vietnam was ruled by the French for a century, and the French influence today is still recognizable in the country’s cuisine and coffee culture.

Now back to Sapa …

Sapa is a top tourist attraction in Vietnam with sought after treks to the top of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and all of Indochina at 10,312 ft., or through rice paddies and into local villages, where you can stay with a family from the village for the night. Vietnam is home to about 54 ethnic groups — the large majority, more than 86%, being ethnic Viet or Kihn. The majority of the remaining ethic groups live in the interior mountainous highlands.

Chris and I decided to do the two-day/one-night trek taking us through rice paddies and three villages, a H’mong, Red Dao and Tay village in that order, which included spending the night in the home of a Red Dao family. A distinguishing fashion of the Red Dao women is their red head scarves and shaven eyebrows. This is a photo of the family that we stayed with — the woman on the far right is in traditional dress and the baby girl is wearing a traditional hat made by her mother:

Joining us on our trek was an all-star backpacker group, including a soldier in the British Army, A Muay Thai boxer from Seattle, an Italian, a Spaniard and a Frenchman. Chris and I had a blast with our five new friends, and the family that we stayed with was extremely kind. They prepared a delicious and elaborate meal for us and generously indulged us in their homemade rice wine, which made day two of the hike extremely difficult for all of us in the group.

Here are some photos from our trek:

Next, Halong Bay:

After our trek in Sapa, we headed back to Hanoi, and then from Hanoi we organized a three-day/two-night trip to Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong translates as “descending dragon”, and refers to a legend claiming that during ancient times, when Vietnam was newly formed, dragons descended from the heavens to help the Vietnamese people fight invaders from the North. This legend accounts for the mythical origin of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay. According to the legend:

“While the mighty enemies were attacking the main land, The Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that left the enemy battleship fleet sinking. Thanks to the dragons, the Northern invaders were finally swept away and the peace finally came back to the South East Asian country once again. After thousands of years, the wall of emeralds turned into islands and islets of different sizes and shapes.”

The limestone rock formations pierce through the sea’s aqua blue surface making for a dramatic landscape of seemingly mythical quality. Our tour included one night on a boat and one night in a bungalow on Cat Ba Island. We also visited a pearl farm where we learned that a single plastic sphere is inserted into each clam to increase the production of viable pearls and accelerate their formation. The pearl develops around the artificial center.

Its unparalleled natural beauty made Halong Bay an unforgettable experience. Here are some photos from our trip:

Stay tuned for more from Vietnam!

Good Morning …

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

Morning has broken and in what comes as an inconsistent but exciting bugle call, we are awake.  In any given city, a hive of mopeds begin a growing hum at 4:30 a.m., continuing throughout morning rush hour.  In smaller towns and hamlets, one can hear children playing at 5 a.m.  On the edges of villages, the baying of water buffalo along with the intermittent rooster’s call seem less associated with sunrise than annoyance.  Very early bedtimes are kept around these parts making for even earlier rising.

Where the hell is my breakfast?

Where did the day go?  Is it 6 a.m. already?   In the capital, cafes and restaurants are packed tighter than a Washington D.C. bar at happy hour while a morning meal in a village presents a more subdued ambiance.  Breakfast in a quiet cafe over the owner’s home video of a cock fight.

These things happen.

Coffee, a baguette and maybe we could interest you in a spicy pork soup?

Our travels have taken us beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom to the domaine of the people from the south, Vietnam.  (In the local language, “Viet” refers to  the Vietnamese people, while, “Nam” means, “south”.) A wholly different country with a history, culture and culinary tradition influenced by 1000 years of Chinese rule, 100 years of French rule and a war with my own country.

Did we mention that our trip coincides with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon as well as the 50th anniversary of American troops entering Vietnam?  Those holidays didn’t pop up on our Google calendars.

Snap on your helmets and throw two Coke bottles of fuel in your tanks as we’re about to take you across Vietnam!

First Stop Hanoi:

After filing out of the airplane and descending a staircase to the tarmac (which always seems cool as it makes me think that I’m in the Secret Service or something) we immediately got on a bus (which is less prestigious than a motorcade, but we’ll take what we can get) to the terminal.

A visa for U.S. citizens can be secured in the airport, provided that you have already obtained a “letter of invitation” from a travel agency in advance (for which we paid $17).  On arrival in the airport, you need to have $45 in U.S. currency, exactly.  This is the fee for processing the paperwork and there’s no money exchange or ability to get change of any kind in the airport before walking through customs.  If you do not have this money then you now live in the airport or get on a flight back to wherever you came from.

We hopped a cab to our hotel and noticed several things about Vietnam different from China:

Everyone is on a moped.  China has recently become the largest car market on the planet and while there are certainly numerous mopeds on the streets in Beijing or Shanghai, the roadways are equally or more cluttered with cars.  In Vietnam, the preferred chariot is the moped.  My first run in Hanoi has some video footage, which involves me running slowly, trying not to die, and then, finally walking, and trying not to die.  The sidewalks are full of people doing … things while the roads are clogged with people on mopeds.  To put it mildly, I loved it.

Water buffalo are all over the place.  Next to the bank, behind the grocery store, chewing the grass on the median of the roadway.  They bookend any experience that might occur in Vietnam that doesn’t involve extending a visa in the capital.  Water buffalo are everywhere.  If you are not actually in downtown Hanoi, in a government building, three floors from the street,  you’re probably within 300 feet of a water buffalo.  These are not wild animals and are generally ushered around by a boy between the ages of 10 and 15.  I am told that the locals refer to said youth as, “buffalo boys.”

There are tons of white people wearing ridiculous clothing, all over the place.  Generally sunburned, always in jungle pants with elephants on them (MC Hammer, “2 Legit 2 Quit” video kind of bagginess.  I am told this is born from practicality.  It apparently helps with keeping cool, fending off mosquitoes in Thailand or Cambodia, and making you look like an idiot when you walk around the capital of a country wherein nobody from wears said clothes.).  T-shirts that say “Beer Lao” or something in Thai, or “Bintang” (an Indonesian beer).  (I should mention that when attempting to trim my beard, a month ago, I shorted the electricity of a hotel in Beijing.  The building went dark, I felt bad, I have a pair of scissors now.  Anyway,  I now look a bit Hasidic.)  We are now on a decidedly more dedicated tourist route.  In Hanoi, heading south towards Ho Chi Minh City, we are encountering numerous others from Europe, Australia, U.S., etc … who are either heading in the same direction or are arriving from points south.

A recognizable script.  While Vietnam was ruled by China for 1000 years and there are numerous shared words from Chinese, a phoneticized version of the language was created by a French missionary in the 1600s, which was enforced as the official script during French colonization.  I’ve heard a bit about how this was done to aid in growing the literacy rate (learning characters is hard) and I have heard a good bit about how this was a tool of control imposed by French occupiers.  My bachelor’s degree from a football school and several weeks in country doesn’t really allow me to comment here.  While Chinese script is still visible on pre-colonial architecture, everyone in Vietnam reads a script of an Asian language, put to Roman characters, with accents denoting tones.  (Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language.)  There’s something refreshing about finally be able to read something and not understand it, as opposed to understanding something and not being able to read it.

Some important sights to see in Hanoi:

  • The Old Quarter: Old Hanoi was built out on a plan of 36 streets, named according to the products originally sold in those locations.  Garment street, noodle street, cobbler street, etc … very narrow streets throughout which cars could not possibly (but absolutely did) get through. The preferred mode of transport around here is the moped, which is ever-present.  Today, this district is where one can find the majority of the hostels attracting backpackers.  The neighborhood is an interesting mishmash of local flavor, i.e. Pho noodle stands, next to a beer stall, next to a place that sells French food.  All of this is, from time to time, interrupted by a man who walks by, dragging an amplifier playing Michael Jackson.  Magic tricks and moon walking ensues.  There were also balloon animals. While commercialized, this area was immensely charming.  I really enjoyed wandering around here.
  • Hoan Kiem Lake:  An Asian Excalibur story if there ever was one.  The emperor of Vietnam, credited with removing the Chinese after 1000 years of rule is said to have been guided to do so by the Gods.  A sword was sent to earth, placed in the center of Hoan Kiem Lake for retrieval by the emperor who wielded it to separate the Vietnamese from their Chinese rulers.  Afterwards, the sword was replaced from whence it came.  A pagoda in the middle of the lake marks the spot where the sword did said ascending/descending.  Surrounding Hoan Kiem, you can find numerous restaurants and cafes which allow for wonderful people watching.  This was the best place to run in Hanoi when I decided that I wanted to be a wimp and stop elbowing mopeds for roadspace.
  • Hoa Lo Prison:  Known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. pilots held there during the war. Taken with buckets of salt, the museum’s curation offers a good bit of information.  Built by the French in 1896 to house political prisoners, torture, beatings, beheadings and inhumane containment in close confinement are well documented during this period.  The remainder follows a basic theme: The French used this prison to commit acts of brutality (noting the number of prisoners per cell along with the guillotine which was used to execute transgressors liberally) while the Vietnamese allowed U.S. service members time to play volleyball and work on arts and crafts.   The home team gets to write the history books I suppose.  John McCaine’s flight suit is on display and nobody took me up on the offer to return it to whatever suburb of D.C. or Phoenix he calls home.
  • Temple of Literature:  Originally built in 1070 by emperor Ly Nhan Tong as a temple to Confucius and the Imperial Academy (Vietnam’s first university), this site now serves to inspire Vietnamese students.  Students having just graduated, crowded the temple with their cap and gowns to take photos.

Here are photos from our stay in Hanoi: