here are my last photos. these are from our last few days in saigon and our side trip.
here are my last photos. these are from our last few days in saigon and our side trip.
We only had a few brief days left in Vietnam after we left Hoi An. What to do with them? The one main place that we wanted to check out still was Dalat, but it really didn’t seem like we had enough time to. So, we decided to just fly back to Saigon and spend the last few days there. Coming back to Saigon, it really struck me as to how big of a city it is. It didn’t really hit me as hard when I was coming from the US, but after traveling around the rest of Vietnam, returning to Saigon with it’s 20 story buildings and bustling downtown was quite a shock. It really seems like Saigon should be the capital here, not Hanoi… but I guess that’s what happens when you are on the losing side of a civil war. first thing we did upon getting in was to have some pho at Pho 24. this chain is super big here… practically like starbucks as you can find one on every other block (yeah, yeah, if it was really like starbucks there’d be 2 or 3 of them per *each* block!). later that night, we went out to a few chi-chi bars… one of them being on top of a fancy hotel with great views overlooking the city. It’s pretty trippy being at a bar where if you grab a cigarette, the waiter will run over and light it for you.
There is this religious sect in Vietnam called Cao Dai. Their religion is an interesting mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and spirit worship. At one point in time, the religion was growing like crazy here, and it’s leaders pretty much ruled a huge chunk of the country. But, after the war, they lost a lot of the power they once had. Their main temple is in a town called Tay Nihn, which isn’t too far from Saigon, so we decided to hire a car and do a day trip there.
The temple was all bright and very colorful, and the worshippers were too. They wore white, red, yellow, and blue robes which stood for various things though I cant remember what. All of the worshippers filed in, walking in even rows, and then sat down to pray while some people up in the balcony played instruments and sang. It was really cool, and super unique. I’ve been to tons of churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist temples, but never something like this.
The second thing that we had wanted to check out that day was Ba Den mountain. But before that, we had to get some food since we were starving. Our driver pulled over at a random restaurant on the side of the road. When we walked in, the few people who worked there went nuts. This area gets pretty much no western tourists, and so they were totally not expecting us at all. Everyone jumped up, and frantically started pushing chairs and tables around, putting table cloths on, etc etc while shyly giggling the whole time. Finally things were ready… but none of them spoke English. Hrm. One of them ran to the car to get our driver, but as they ran off, I knew it would be hopeless… our driver knew pretty much no English either.
So there we were. Everyone staring at each other, laughing, and not knowing what to do. Finally, someone hopped on a motorbike and raced off. They came back with another girl who handed us a menu. The menu, of course, was written in Vietnamese. So, we pulled out our guidebook and laboriously tried to translate the menu. Unfortunately, hardly anything we saw on the menu was to be found in our book… but luckily, we did find one thing, so we ordered that and also agreed to some shrimp when the girl pointed to a picture of shrimp. We were then herded back into our car and driven to this other restaurant (apparently the first one, despite setting the table etc etc, couldn’t make food?!), where we finally got fed. The whole episode was really damn funny, and is a great example of what I love about traveling… whacky confusion like that just doesn’t really happen at home, but here you never know what to expect!
At the mountain, it was a long and hot hike up… but somehow we made it up in half the time the guidebook said it would take us. We didn’t really know what top expect at the top, and you couldn’t really ever make stuff out through all the trees until the end where there was a long narrow staircase that I raced up… at the top, there was a large beautiful temple with a huge reclining Buddha a bit farther up the hill. Monkeys ran around from tree to tree and pestered people for food. There was some kind of ceremony going on inside the temple, and when we came to watch it, this old nun, with only three teeth, hobbled up and with a huge grin, gave us some tangerines. It was really cool.
We took a gondola on our way back down the mountain. Looking to the side, it turned out that there was this huge metal slide that goes all the way down the mountain and you can rent these little carts to zip down. That would have been so crazy fun! back in town we had some delicious sushi, and then decided to go check out a club for a bit. This club, Apocalypse Now, was one of the longest running clubs in Saigon. The atmosphere inside was so random. There wasn’t much of a dance floor per se, mainly just a bunch of high tables scattered throughout the room, with a small dance area to the side. But people were dancing and stuff at their own tables, or between the tables, or wherever. And then, the soccer game was on and people were watching that too. This was like a cross between a bar and a club all mashed together. The music was all cheesy top 40 hits etc, but people were really digging it and it was actually a pretty fun atmosphere.
It was our last day in Vietnam. Started off the day by going to Pho 2000. I got the vermicelli bowl. I usually like to add chili sauce and hoisin to my vermicelli, even though I do realize that those are mainly for pho. So, I reach for the chili sauce, and just as I do that, the Vietnamese girl across the table totally jolts up, looks at me with a horrified expression on her face, and starts shaking her head frantically. It was SO funny. She really really freaked out! Well, I went ahead and added it anyways… I like it, what can I say?
We spent most of the afternoon rushing about and trying to buy souvenirs. A lot of frantic and fast bargaining, and I think we did a fairly good job of buying junk. We were in a hurry because we had an appointment for that afternoon. Now, I’ve never been one of those sissy boys that likes to go around getting facials or anything… well, until that day. One of the things that sucked about Vietnam in comparison to Thailand, was that there was no Thai massage. Dude, I wanted my Thai massage dammit! well, actually, there were *some* massage places, but those were the kind w/ the “happy ending”. So, on our last day we decided to go to a nice place and get real good massages. We both got these 3.5 hour packages which included a massage, a foot massage, and… a facial. Ok, now, why anyone would want to sit around and get a bunch of gunk rubbed on their face is beyond me, but it was included, so I figured, why not?
In the end, the whole massage experience was hella dope actually. It started off with this sauna part, which I actually didn’t really enjoy at first. It was soooooo hot, I could barely breath from all the steam, and it was pretty much painful. Eventually I got used to it though, and when they brought the iced tea in… dude, that shit was soooooo good. Next came the massage. 1.5 hours, and the chick did a really good job… crazy relaxing. Then, the facial part. Even though I thought it was gonna be lame.. I actually really enjoyed it. It was like an hour long face massage, and surprisingly, even all the various creams, towels, and this-and-that’s that they used were super cool. It was definitely a bit odd.. like sometimes they cover my whole face with a towel with just my nose sticking out so I could breathe, but still really cool… and my face was damn shiny afterwards! The last part, the foot massage, was great as well… and I left there feeling like a new man. Sooo chill and relaxed.
We had a one final dinner at “one of Vietnam’s best restaurants” which actually ended up being unimpressive, and that’s it… Vietnam was done!!
Hoi An is a small town in central Vietnam, not too far to the east of Hue. As our bus rolled into town, it stopped to pick up a travel agent who proceeded to hold us hostage for the next half an hour. She had the bus drive to several of her hotels, badgered us at each one to get off the bus and book a room, and would not let us go into town until she was done w/ us. So annoying!
Hoi An is a really nice town. They have all sort of laws here that don’t allow the buildings to be changed, so the town looks a lot like it did a hundred years back with really cool architecture and even though it’s bursting at the seams w/ tourists, it somehow maintains a relaxed small town feel. This was definitely the vietnam we had been hoping to see. We spent some time wandering the streets and checked out some of the temples, old houses, etc in town.
Hoi An is also really famous for its food, and here we had some of the best Vietnamese food on our trip. Pretty much every meal we ate here was super good. On our first afternoon, we at this tiny outdoor eatery. The owner came out and brought us a ton of food without us saying anything. She proceeded to show us how everything worked: you put an egg roll and some grilled pork into a wrapper, added fresh herbs and Kim Chee, and then dipped the whole thing into chili peanut sauce. It was so damn good! As we ate, the owner chatted w/ us and taught us how to say various things in Vietnamese. At another restaurant, we tried three of Hoi An’s specialties: white rose (a shrimp dumpling), fried wontons, and a special kind of noodle soup w/ croutons. Everything was super good… so good in fact that even Daniel liked it! Daniel is an extremely picky eater, more of a fan of macaroni or pizza than Vietnamese food, but he has been giving Vietnamese food a shot and to my surprise, tried a whole bunch of stuff over the week he spent w/ us. A lot of it I could tell wasn’t really his thing, but a bunch of the food in Hoi An went over quite well.
Another thing that Hoi An is famous for is its shopping. The town is exploding w/ tailors and this is *the* place in Vietnam to get suits made for cheap. You go in, you choose your fabrics, you choose the style, they measure you up, and you end up getting a suit specifically tailored to you. And it’s not just suits, you can get shirts, jackets, shoes, etc etc. show them a photo of something in a fashion magazine, they’ll copy it in just a day. A lot of the stuff we saw while window shopping looked really good, so we all decided to get some clothes made. And not just a little… each of us got a bunch of stuff.
In the end, the whole process got to be a bit stressful. They, of course, try to crank this stuff out as fast as possible. If you’re not super anal and picky over every little thing and examine it carefully, they’re prone to make all sorts of mistakes. If they mess something up, you have to come back after they try to fix it… sometimes again and again and again. I’m not sure just how much time we spent in shops while in Hoi An, but it was quite a bit. In the end, I got 6 shirts that I’m happy with, and a suit that I’m happy with too (I’ll have to look it over again once I get home). I got two pairs of shoes which look ok, but you can pretty much tell they’re cheaply made copies, and then I got this one jacket. The jacket was quite a fiasco, and as soon as I tried it on, I could tell I shouldn’t have ordered it. It looked ok I guess, but something about it just was really off. It was cut all wrong, and I tried explaining this to them, but they just didn’t get it (or didn’t care). I went back several times for them to fix things on it, but the jacket never looked right in the end. I guess when people say that you get what you pay for, they’re usually right!
South of Hoi An, there are all of these old ruins at My Son. We rented scooters for the day to go check them out. The temples themselves were pretty cool, but for me, the most fun part really was riding the scooters. It’s a total blast to be zipping down the road, weaving around traffic and checking out the scenery on all sides. You can take your own pace and stop wherever you please… so much more freedom than taking a tour. Both Daniel and caryn were a bit apprehensive about renting scooters in Vietnam. After seeing the utter insanity of how people drive in Saigon, it definitely was a bit intimidating… but traffic here was a lot more chill. Other than a few crazy intersections, we had no trouble.
On the way back, we decided to stop and get some pho. So far, for the whole trip, we had eaten only at restaurants that we had seen in our guidebook etc… ones w/ western menus that cater to tourists frequently. I really wanted to try something off the beaten path, so we just stopped at a random spot in the middle of nowhere. We pointed at the sign that said Pho, and made a gesture that we wanted 3. it ended up being pretty good, and the couple of locals that were around got really excited that we were there.
Sadly, the next day, my brother had to leave. We went out to one of hoi an’s many bars that night, and just kicked it. That night we saw this douche bag Australian guy take a large bite out of a pint glass and spit it back into the glass. What a dumbass.
The rest of the time in hoi an was spent shopping for souvenirs, more shopping, and more eating. This one restaurant, Café des Amis, was sooo damn good. There’s no menu, you just choose seafood, veggie, or meat, and they serve you whatever they feel like. 6 or so courses worth. Pretty much everything they served was so damn good! So good actually, that we ate there the following night again, when we were served all new dishes. Yum!
It was still dark when I woke up to go catch my flight to Hue. I was only half awake when I stepped out of my hotel and on the tiny stairs outside (just 3 steps!) I managed to somehow roll my ankle and collapse in a heap w/ my huge backpack on. It’s pretty embarrassing, falling like that, and to make matters worse, my knee was bleeding pretty good when I got up and my ankle was throbbing. Just great. The only thing the taxi driver had for me to put on my knee was a sheet of paper from his dirty notebook. I rinsed my knee with water upon arriving to the airport, but it ended getting infected, I think, and ended up oozing mysterious gunk for the next few days. Yuck.
Pretty much all the flights to Hue had been full that day, and I had been lucky enough to snag the very last seat… caryn had to stay behind and catch a flight the next day. The seat that I got was business class, and only cost like $20 more than economy. Flying business class was actually pretty cool. I got to hang out in the business class lounge before the flight where you could get free soup, snacks, and drinks. On the flight, the seats were all comfy, we got hot towels a few times, and the food was nicer than economy. At the end of our flight, the shuttle to the terminal took off as soon as the last business class passenger got on board, even though there were only like 10 of us, and left the economy passengers behind to wait for the next one. Wow, so this is how the other half lives?
My brother’s flight came in later that day. It was really exciting to see him. We had hung out for a couple of weeks in Japan, and it was cool to get to hang out w/ him in a foreign country again. It had been a bit of a toss up near the end as to whether he would be able to come or not, but in the end, he was able to do it, if only for a super short 6 day trip. We went out to dinner where he told me about his adventures over the last day (he had spent a day in Saigon on his own. Somehow my brother always gets into some zany situations when he’s on his own abroad.
Dinner was pretty good. In Hue, there are many dishes were you put together your own food at the table. They serve you these super thin rice paper wrappers, and you fill them w/ various meats, vegetables, and other fillings. Daniel looked a bit nervous at first, but I think he ended up being ok w/ the food. The owner of this restaurant was this deaf mute guy who was hella funny as he kept miming these different things to us. After our meal, he made us each a bottle opener made out of a stick with a bolt through it. He set each of our bottle openers on a large 22 ounce beer and then made a karate chopping motion and pointed at the two beers. No way. Was he really gonna open both beers at one w/ one karate chop?!? Yup. Smack! And both bottles opened right up. So cool! After dinner, we walked around town for a little longer, but my brother was super jetlagged, and so we crashed out early.
Caryn met up with us today and we went to go check out town. Unfortunately, it was raining. Everywhere, the streets were filled w/ people riding scooters while wearing huge ponchos or riding bikes in ponchos. Often times, there would be like 3 or 4 people on a scooter, with one huge poncho covering all of them, and only the person in front could actually see out while the rest of the people were completely covered. How scary would that be… riding on a scooter in the rain and unable to see anything whatsoever? It’s crazy, scooters are so popular here, that a lot of the ponchos have a clear panel about half way down the front. Why? So the scooter’s headlight can shine through the poncho at night.
Hue is divided into two main parts, the old city which has a huge citadel with lots of pagodas etc, and the new city which is more modern. Since the thought of walking in the rain all day didn’t sound to appealing, we all rented cyclos and had them cart us around to some of the major sites. It’s funny, whenever I would see a tourist in a cyclo, I would roll my eyes and think that it was such a cheesy touristy thing to do… but really, it’s quite a nice way to spend a few hours. It’s pretty relaxing to just sit back and check out different parts of town. Our drivers would give us brief descriptions of stuff that we drove by, at least as much as they could w/ their limited English, and also showed us how to get into some places that seemed inaccessible.
There are several ponds in the citadel area and one of them was filled with an insane amount of koi. This guy would throw food into the water and all the koi would swarm around. There were so many that some of them were slithering over each other and were coming out of the water in order to get at the food!
Later that day we went to go check out the Thien Mu pagoda. It’s this multi-story tower and is for many people the symbol of Hue.
For dinner that night, we ate at a French Vietnamese restaurant. Caryn and I ordered a set menu and there was an insane amount of food… like 8 or 9 courses. Pretty much all of it was really good, but by the end we were sooo stuffed.
We decided to take a tour of the DMZ, the “demilitarized” zone that used to separate north and south Vietnam. I’ve never really been a war buff or anything, but I think it’s important to learn about such things and also, knowing a country’s history tells you a lot about why the country is the way it is today. I’ve been on some crappy tours in my time, with guides who just droned on and on, or were barely intelligible and honestly I didn’t have the highest expectations for this one. But it turned out that our tour guide was super good. He actually had grown up in this area and had hung out w/ American soldiers when he was a kid. His uncle and brother had fought in the south Vietnam army during the war. He had lived during Vietnam’s communism days where all businesses were owned by the government, and people had to live off food coupons that gave them 1 pound of meat for a whole month. All of the stories he told were very personalized and thus extremely fascinating. Other than knowing that the Vietnam war was pretty unpopular by many in the US and about the protests etc, I actually knew very little about the war, so it was very interesting to learn about it.
On the tour we stopped by many areas that played key roles during the war. First, we stopped by the bridge over the Ben Hai river which used to separate north and south Vietnam. The next stop was one of the highlights of the tour. During the war, the Vietnamese built a lot of underground tunnels where many people would live to keep themselves safe from American bombing. A lot of these tunnels are gone now, but some of them, like the vinh moc tunnels still exist and you can walk around inside them. It’s so nuts… these tunnels are so tiny, you cant really fully stand up and they’re only like 3 feet wide. So cramped! It’s insane to think that many many families lived here for years on end. Each family would get a small “room” to themselves that was maybe like 5 feet by 6 feet wide. Just being down there for the 20 minute tour made me feel extremely claustrophobic and sketched out… what if the tunnels somehow collapsed? And, back when people were living here during the war, they had to always worry about bombs dropping on them and destroying the tunnels.
We also stopped by the famous military base of khe san were one of the most important battles of the Vietnamese war happened. Our tour guide told us that sometimes he leads tours here for US veterans who fought in the war. I cant even imagine what that might be like… returning back to a place that must have such insane and horrific memories. All in all, it was a very informative day. It’s interesting that it took going to Vietnam to get me to learn some of my own country’s history!
When we got back to Hanoi from halong bay, we only had three hours before we needed to be on a train to Sapa. We took advantage of that short time by having some pho and also going to a bia hoi place. Bia hoi is the local draught beer, and people often drink it at streetside stalls. It’s dirt cheap (less than 30 cents for a glass) and pretty good.
Pretty soon, we had to run off to catch the train to Sapa, a small mountain town in the north of Vietnam near the china border. Several of Vietnam’s ethnic minority hill tribes live there. On the night train from Hanoi, we shared our compartment w/ two Vietnamese women. It’s funny, most of the people we’d encountered so far took no interest in foreigners (seeing as they must see tons of tourists everyday), but one of the women in our compartment got really excited to see us and started taking photos of us with her camera phone to send to her friends.
After the train, we did the last leg of the trip by minivan up a steep and treacherous mountain road through thick fog w/ pretty much no visibility. The driver rarely drove on the correct side of the road, instead choosing to just honk his horn continuously to warn approaching cars.
In town, we were staying at a hotel about one zillion steps (or so it seemed) up the mountain that had gorgeous views of the surrounding area… or at least it would have if the fog hadn’t been so thick that you could barely see across the street. Along w/ this Australian girl August, we went out to go see the Sapa market. The market was pretty interesting w/ people selling everything from vegetables to souvenirs to clothing. the thing that made this different than other markets, was that there were lots of the hill tribe people there. It was really cool to see all of them dressed in their traditional clothes, the people of each tribe looking very different from each other. It was quite a contrast to the Vietnamese people who, other than the conical hats, pretty much all wear western clothes these days.
As excited as we were to see the hill tribe people, they were even more excited to see us… because they wanted to sell us their stuff. Man, these people were unbelievably persistent. You would think that there were only so many times that you could say no to buying a pillowcase or bracelet, but no, they would just follow you all over town and keep asking… just in case you finally changed your mind, or at least got tired of saying no. we got some pretty funny videos of people trying to sell us stuff.
After hiding in a café, we went on a hike that was part of our tour. The hike seemed like it would have been incredible beautiful… but we could see hardly anything because of the fog. We checked out some not-so impressive waterfalls and also went to one of the small nearby villages for a tiny bit.
That night, seeing as we were high up in the mountains, it was hellza cold. Our hotel had given us some wood that we could use for the fireplace in our room. Well, apparently I don’t really know how to start a fire (especially using damp wood/paper), so I had used almost all of the matches w/ no success. For the last match, I had the brilliant idea of putting a ton of toilet paper in the fireplace, and I finally got things going. It seemed like some of the smoke was coming into the room, but I thought it’d probably be fine and went to shower. Nope. When I came out of the shower, the whole room was filled w/ smoke, and caryn had all the windows and door open and was fanning smoke out w/ a blanket. Doh. My eyes stinging from smoke, I called reception for help. Luckily, they let us change rooms
The next morning, caryn wasn’t feeling very well so she stayed in, while I went on a long hike w/ our guide. We walked for a long time, and every once in a while the guide would stop and say something like “over there is a very beautiful view and you can see many many rice terraces… but not today because it’s too foggy”. Pretty much the whole hike down, you see almost nothing below. But when we finally got near the bottom, we could finally start to see some of the rice terraces.
The rice terraces looked really cool, even through the mist. Walking on them was super sketchy though. The ground was incredibly muddy and slippery, and you had to walk across the rocks at the edges of each terrace… one bad step and you’d fall into the nasty muddy water. Our guide also took us to a couple of the smaller villages nearby, and we got to see how some of the hill tribes live, where they go to school, etc. I had noticed that some of the people here had little red marks on their foreheads, and I asked our guide about them. “oh that is for headache” she told me, and I totally remembered how Cao Boi from Survivor would do this weird thing to people’s heads to get rid of headaches, and how a red mark would be left behind. How random that this is actually a common thing here!
At the end of our hike, we weren’t exactly eager to hike back up all the way that we had just hiked down, so we took motorbike taxis back up the mountain. Dude… it was so freaky. I was scared shitless. The road is totally wet and gravelly, you can pretty much not see more than a few yards in front of you due to fog, you aren’t wearing a helmet, there are lots of trucks and other obstacles in your way, and yet the driver insists in flying up the mountain as fast as he can. I was totally hanging on for dear life and counting down the last seconds that I had to live. I’m usually hella down for motorbikes, but this was way not cool. About half way up the mountain though, I just decided, hell, there’s nothing I can do to change the situation now… nothing is up to me, whatever will happen, will happen… may as well enjoy it. And somehow I was fine from then on… actually it was pretty fun flying up this mountain, getting drenched, and constantly driving into the never-ending white fog.
That night, a little before we took our train back to Hanoi, I started feeling a little funny. Uh-oh. I hoped things would get better, but no… they got worse. Much worse. Soon I had to make a frantic dash to the restroom and was vomiting from both ends. Yes, it was fucking awful. I was completely miserable for the rest of the evening, and barely was able to fall asleep on the train because my stomach was killing me. Ugh. It turns out, we heard later that a ton of other people who had gone up to Sapa had also gotten ill. By now actually, we’ve heard of at least 7 or 8 others. Must be something heinous going around there. ugh.
We got back to Hanoi a little after 5 am. It will still dark outside and we stumbled to the hotel, completely exhausted, and me still filling pretty ill. The hotel still had it’s shutters down, and we didn’t want to wake them too early, so we decided to at least wait till dawn to knock. We walked to a nearby church and collapsed on the steps. We sat there for almost an hour in the darkness, barely staying conscious while listening to the melodic singing from inside (people go to church *early* in Vietnam. Finally, at 6:30, we got to go to sleep.
The next day I spent recovering and didn’t leave the hotel room at all. More vomiting etc. I started taking antibiotics, and by night time I was feeling almost decent. Thank god cause the next day I’d be taking a flight at 6:30 am… ouch.
Halong bay is one of vietnam’s most famous sites. It’s a large bay w/ over 3000 limestone cliffs jutting out of it. We booked a 2 day tour to go check it out. On the 3 hour drive there, it was cool to look out the window and watch the Vietnamese countryside go by. We saw farmers working in the fields and lots of small towns.
After arriving in halong city, we boarded our boat and sailed into the bay. Our first worry was that we wouldn’t be able to see anything. The bay was extremely misty and visibility was really bad. Eventually, as we cruised along, the limestone cliffs started coming into view, but they were difficult to make out… you could pretty much only see the silhouettes. But as we got closer, things started looking better… though things were definitely still murky. In a way though, it was actually pretty cool to see the cliffs slowly appear out of the fog. As we moved forward, you could see layers upon layers of these cliffs, each of them a varying shade of gray depending on how close or far way they were.
Eventually, we got to Titop island where we got to hike up a (small) mountain. From the top, the views of the bay were stunning. For the first time, we were able to see the islands in good lighting.
After chilling on the island for a bit, we got back on the boat. The boat we were staying on was really nice. Each room had its own private bathroom and the dining area was huge though there were only 11 tourists onboard! When we anchored for the night, some of us went swimming. We got to jump from the second story of the boat down into the water below which was really fun, though insanely freezing. After swimming, we spent the rest of the night kicking it w/ the rest of the people from our tour. A couple of times, this woman on a raft would float up to our boat and try to sell us crackers, chips, etc. what a crazy job that must be, floating all day on raft from boat to boat, trying to sell stuff to tourists.
The next day, we checked out this huge cave on one of the islands. This thing was enormous and each time I though we had gotten to the end of it, there would be another huge chamber to explore.
Then, that was pretty much it. We sailed back to halong city, taking in the views as we went.
One other crazy thing about halong bay is that there are people there who live in floating houses. These are small houses on floating platforms in the bay. That must be such a weird way to live… every time you step out your front door, you’re surrounded by water.
Due to lack of time, after only spending two days in Saigon, we flew to Hanoi today. Right away, I liked Hanoi better. Although it’s the capital of Vietnam, it’s a much smaller city than Saigon. 4 million people live here, half as much as in Saigon (although there are 3 million motorbikes!). the city is a maze of tiny little streets going in every direction and filled with tons of small shops. The buildings here are smaller but more intricate than the ones in Saigon. An interesting thing here is that a lot of the buildings are “tunnel houses”. There used to be a housing tax based on how much street space a building occupied, so to get around that, people built houses that were very narrow but tall and deep… it looks pretty crazy.
We stayed in the old quarter. In the old days, each street here was designated to sell one particular thing: cotton street, fish street, incense street etc, but nowadays everyone just sells random things all over the place. This is definitely a good place to just wander around and get lost in. although there are less scooters here, the streets are much narrower, so it might be even more scary to cross the street here! Other than just walking about, we also checked out this cool pagoda that’s on a tiny island in this lake.
One night in Hanoi we decided to check out the water puppet theater. This is a northern Vietnamese tradition where they make wooden puppets which do little performances on the water. The puppeteers (who are hidden behind the set) make puppets swim around, walk on water, etc. it was actually really neat. Lots of the puppets have moving limbs etc, and it’s really impressive just how animated the puppeteers make them.
We had two memorable dining experiences in Hanoi. We ate at a French café and tried frog legs. They were actually pretty good, and yeah, they do taste like chicken. It is kind of weird though when you’ve eaten all the meat and you see this funky frog shaped bone left. Another night, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner and went out to seafood. Looking over the menu, we saw that they had these huge golf ball sized snails which are a delicacy here in Hanoi. We decided to give it a shot. Our waiter took us down to a separate room where they kept all the fish etc, but there turned out not to be any huge snails that day… there were however lots of lobsters. Even though the lobsters were insanely expensive (about $100, but these were massive 2.5 pound lobsters), we decided to go for it. So, the guy grabs a lobster out of the tank and the thing starts going totally nuts… struggling and snapping and trying to get free. Ugh, it was awful and I started feeling really bad. I didn’t want to actually see the lobster that they were about to kill for us. So, we went back to our table and were all bummed. To make things worse, they totally overcooked the lobster and it tasted pretty bad. *sigh*. In hanoi, there are several restaurants that serve dog. I had been mulling it over as to whether I should go try it. Btu after the whole lobster scenario, I decided that I wouldn’t do it. If someone else was eating dog and offered some, I’d try it for sure just to see what it tastes like, but I couldn’t bring myself to go down there and know that a dog was slaughtered for me. Just too sad. I was reading in the guidebook that a lot of these dogs are raised on farms, but some of them are just snatched off the street!! Because of that, the Vietnamese who own dogs as pets are very possessive of them and don’t let wander very far!
Our second day in ho chi minh city, we started off like the first by having pho. So good! We then went to go check out the Chinese area of town, Cholon. There is this one street that is famous for it’s herb shops and we walked around there checking out all the crazy herbs they have for sale. So many crazy different kinds of smells. Not only did they sell herbs there, but there were lots of other weird things like dried sea horses for sale, cobras and scorpions soaked in wine, shark fins, and dried out bats.
We then checked out some of the elaborate pagodas. There are a ton of them in this part of town, sometimes more than 2 per block! It was really cool to walk through them, so quiet and tranquil compared to the hectic motorbike madness outside. Inside the pagodas, Buddhists lit incense and bowed to the Buddha statues while others left offerings on various altars. Each pagoda was filled with unbelievably intricate wooden carvings and many multicolored statues. One of the pagodas had music playing inside which really added to the atmosphere. It’s really interesting how everything in these pagodas is so much less formal than say in church or something. Whereas you would expect quietness and people talking in hushed tones etc, here cell phone go off, people chat loudly, others eat food, tourists snap photos.
Later on that day, we checked out the War Remnants Museum. This museums gave a bit of history about the Vietnam war and showed tons of photographs etc. it was pretty brutal. There were some really hardcore depictions of torture, a replica of the tiny cages that POWs were kept in, and some really disturbing photos. One of the most disturbing parts of the museum was a large display about agent orange w/ photos of deformed people and children. It was horrific to see what happened to all of these people because of what the US had done.
Here are a few other random notes about Vietnam:
When riding scooters, most of the women here wear bandanas on their faces which makes them look kind of like bank robbers or cowboys.
The Vietnamese use the same alphabet as we do which makes reading streets signs etc a lot easier.
It seems like it’s the women here that do most of the work. You see them hauling huge loads of things, cleaning the streets, cooking the food, running the shops, etc etc. I’m not really sure what the men do other than drive taxis, cyclos, and motorbikes!