After leaving Laos I headed back to Hanoi to meet up with an old friend from Canada. Our plan was to check out Vietnam by heading down the coast and exploring the cities and some of the smaller, less traveled areas. However, before I got to Hanoi, I went through Chaing Rai, Thailand. It had two things that were worthy of mention. The night markets and the White Temple. I'm not going to say much about the White Temple other than take a look at the pictures below. I'm not sure what the story is with all of the hands, but I couldn't take enough pictures of them!
Once in Hanoi, we started by taking a couple day boat ride out to Ha Long Bay. I knew this was a popular destination for visitors in Hanoi, but I had no idea how popular it was until we pulled up to the port and saw the mass of buses and tourists all vying to get down to their ship and leave the harbor. I thought to myself that this was a mistake and had feelings of immediate regret that we signed up with one of the big tour companies. A tourist trap for sure. However, once we cleared the ticket counter and boarded a smaller boat we cruised out to the edge of the harbor to climb aboard our junk boat. (Junk if you are wondering is the style of boat….hey, I had never heard of it either!) Our boat was nice. It was very nice and we would be sharing it with about 24 other people, and not one of them was an American.
We cruised through Ha Long Bay and saw the massive rock formations climbing out of the sea. Lunch and dinner were both exotic and filling as food just kept coming and coming. The spring rolls were served with the lights turned off as they were skewered on toothpicks attached to a hollowed out pineapple with holes in the sides allowing a candle on the inside to illuminate the table. A vase of flowers was placed on each table to add to the décor, only they weren't flowers, they were carrots, bell peppers, radishes and the like all carved into different types of 'flower food art'. This was not a $5 cruise…..Unfortunately before we left Hanoi we were treated to a free breakfast from the tour company. I say unfortunately because Erin, my Canadian friend, managed to draw the short straw and get food poisoning. The whole 3 hour bus ride out to Ha Long she wasn't feeling well. We made it all the way to the boat, and while climbing the stairs to reach our room, Erin heard the 'voice'. If you've been reading these blogs, then you'll recall that I had heard the voice earlier this year while in India. Well about two rungs up the ladder, the voice called out to Erin to immediately halt her accent, turn around and run to the nearest bathroom…..which she did. The rest of her day was spent much as mine had been, ejecting everything that you had in you….over and over. Not a great way to start a 2 day cruise.
Our trip back to Hanoi started out as our trip to Ha Long began…..with a traffic fatality. Motor bikes are rampant in this region and in the city they are great, but once on the open roads….they don't stand a chance. I won't go into the grotesque nature of the accidents, but lets just say that they were very graphic and left images in my mind that I will not soon forget. We came upon both of these accidents minutes after they had occurred, so long story short, we pretty much saw everything. And I can confirm without a shadow of doubt that they were both fatal. Both of these were also right at the beginning of a 4 hour bus ride, which made the rest of the ride a bit unnerving as well as thankful that we were inside a large bus with a Vietnamese driver. I know that I won't be driving on these roads any time soon.
That day, we went and found some ancient ruins being unearthed in downtown Hanoi. It was an archeological dig that was taking place that I read about in the New York Times of all places. Pretty cool! That evening sitting at the Candle Cafe in the Old Quarter of Hanoi awaiting our night train to Hue down the coast, I heard an old woman banging loudly on a metal shovel as she pushed a cart filled with garbage up the street. It was garbage time, not day mind you, but time. The event that was about to transpire was a nightly event, not weekly. After about 5 solid seconds of loud banging, she stopped and proceeded to start to sweep the piles that had accumulated in the gutters of the streets into the shovel and dump them in the garbage cart. The banging also stirred something inside the café as 2 workers appeared with 5 gallon buckets filled to the brim with refuse about to become part of the nightly deposit. While talking about garbage might not be interesting, it does give you a deep glimpse into the everyday life of living in Hanoi. It is also noteworthy to mention that any combustible garbage is burned…..right there in the gutter, on the curb. You make a pile of garbage to get picked up and then you make a pile to burn and light it on fire. This makes navigating the sidewalks always interesting as you are constantly stepping around and sometimes over miniature and sporadic sidewalk bonfires.
Waking up in Vietnam is an interesting experience, and it usually involves a loud speaker of some sort. While in Hanoi, loud speakers are conveniently mounted on light posts through out the city. Usually just before 07:00 they start by blaring communist propaganda for the better part of an hour. That way you can lay in bed and listen to the government tell you what they want you to hear, all in Vietnamese of course. You would think that if you took a night train, as I did to Hue from Hanoi, then you would be spared this lovely wake up call. Well, yes and no. The train was a bit different. Before spreading the love of communist propaganda (In Vietnamese and English btw), they started the morning off around 06:30 with an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra's My Way…..and a bad instrumental rendition at that. But I will admit that I found myself humming along before I drifted in and out of sleep for the next hour or so attempting in vein to deny that the day had actually begun and it was time to rise.
If you've been there, then you'll know that Hue is Vietnam's Seattle. It rains there…..a lot! Every time I've heard someone talk about it, whether it be recently or having gone there a few years ago, they always refer to the rain and the flooding. Well, now I know why. Hue is an ancient city. (Inside voice use John Cleese in Monty Python style) The old part of town floods fairly easily and is actually surrounded by a moat and a wall creating what they call the Citadel. Then within that moat is the Imperial Enclosure….oh yes….it's surrounded by a moat and a wall as well. And for good measure…within the Imperial Enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City, which, as you may have guessed, has another wall…and yet another moat. As you can imagine, if it weren't for a bunch of bridges….you'd never get in, however, since they built the bridges they have there by negated the walls and the moats all together rendering them useless. (End Monty Python dialog)
Walking around Hue we saw some unusual sights. First were the massive gun turrets on either end of the bridge. Being thankful that they weren't manned, we continued on down the street and stumbled on some vendors selling war era items, some of which were several US dog tags from the war. When you stop and think about how those dog tags got to where they were today…..it makes you come to the realization that they didn't get there for any good reason. Part of me wanted to buy up the whole lot and upon return track down the families of these soldiers and let them know where I found this dog tag. In the end I didn't buy anything. I couldn't wrap my head around the significance of that act and all the meaning behind it. It honestly was a bit too much for a backpacker just trying to see the world…. All in all, Hue wasn't all moats and walls and Forbidden Purple Cities…..it was also my very first experience with dysentery. Took a big gulp of local water and regretted it a split second after I lowered the cup. Woops. I regretted it even more around 1 in the morning when I woke up, rushed to the bathroom and couldn't figure out if I should kneel or sit. Not a real concern really, I would be doing both soon enough. All I have to say about that one is….thank god for all the hoses on the bathroom walls in Asia…..a very multi purpose device indeed!
Dining in Hue was interesting as well, and I would say NOT for a food connoisseur. I say this because while the food is all generally good, you can't go into a restaurant and not get a menu that is smaller than 25 pages. They all literally have EVERYTHING on the menu, western food, local food, Thai food, and some random other mixes. But none of the main restaurants on the main drags focus on one thing, they all serve everything….some better than others. But anyone who knows about a good dining experience doesn't want a place that can serve everyone and their brother, they want a place that has a specialty, a focus. A place that when someone says you know where I had the best Pho in Hue…..it was xyz café. And that's why you go there. This is lost to these restaurants. A shame really….
We chose to fly to Ho Chi Minh as the rail was washed out between Danang and Hue. I had mixed feelings for sure. The Reunification Palace, which was the old South Vietnam Presidential Palace has now been dubbed Independence Hall. Since the north 'liberated' the South in April of '75, it's been kept in it's original condition. The Presidents office has been relatively untouched, as meeting rooms have been as well as the basement which had all of the communications gear left by the American forces. Outside on the grounds you'll find the two Russian made tanks that took credit for liberating the Palace. You'll also find a Bell-412 on the roof and an F5E (I may have gotten that one wrong) that were captured from the US forces when they finally left. It was a very odd feeling being an American and walking into this place. Hearing the tour guide tell how when they finally liberated and saved Saigon that it ended the oppression. I guess when you get down to it, it's all about perspective. Just depends on which side of the wall you are standing.
Another tough pill to swallow, but a must see, was the American War Museum. Several aircraft and tanks alike that were captured from the US were on display here as were hundreds of photographs from global photographers documenting the war. In the main section of the museum, they also had displays of what Agent Orange did to not only the country side, but also the people, both the immediate affects as well as the long term, of which were even a bit more horrifying. They also prominently documented several injustices that occurred during the war which were so far away from the Geneva Convention standards it was ridiculous. But all in all it was a fairly good representation of what occurred during that era in Vietnam's history.
The next day we caught a bus up to Chau Doc. Most people passing through this town do so on their way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia via a boat ride up the Mekong. There were several markets in this town but not much else. We spent a day there and that was enough. Next thing we knew we were on a boat heading to Cambodia…..not bad at all!