Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Vietnam, Part 1: South to North

Vietnam is a country that--like India--travelers seem to either love or hate, no middle ground. We'd spoken to several people in both camps (the lovers and the haters) before we got there, so we tried to go in with our openest minds and most neutral expectations and see how the country struck us.

After obtaining our visas at the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia (Vietnam is one of the only countries in Southeast Asia that makes you get a visa in advance, rather than selling them at the border or not requiring one at all), we took a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, in the country's far south.

HCMC is Vietnam's biggest city... and its most motorcycle-crazy, too. This picture actually looks kind of tame compared to some of the traffic we saw there, but it's the best I've got.
We got off the bus and managed to cross the street successfully (no small feat!) so that we could head into a narrow alleyway and find a guesthouse. (Apparently, that's where all the budget accommodation lives--at least there's less traffic.) Anyway, here's the room that $18 scored us in Ho Chi Minh City--fridge, sat TV, and Internet included. The mattresses were hard, but not too bad otherwise.
Why did we need the extra bed? Because Julie was flying in to join us! Somehow, we convinced our friend Julie to spend the bulk of her year's vacation time backpacking through Vietnam with us. She arrived in HCMC right on schedule, just three flights and 20-something hours after leaving home, and even brought me Lush shampoo and Reese's products from back home. Hooray for Julie!
A good night's sleep later, and we were off to see the sights of Ho Chi Minh City. As it turns out, there aren't so many. We headed for the Reunification Palace, formerly the official residence of the president of South Vietnam (until Northern forces sent a tank through the gates and "reunified" the country.) Somehow, the fact that it was built before communism took over didn't seem to make the architectural choices any less communist-inspired...

Inside, our tour guide let us all know that we were free to photograph Uncle Ho...I mean, this revered bust of communist visionary Ho Chi Minh. It seemed like we'd be letting him down if we passed on this opportunity, so, photo taken.
The palace's interior design has been left pretty much intact since the 1960s and practically looks like a film set. Many rooms looked quite dated, but I thought this one was pretty. Most of the furniture and art in it is lacquered, so since I can't remember what it was used for, I'm going to call it the Lacquer Room. (Actually, I just did some googling, and it's the "Credentials Room"--where foreign visitors presented their credentials to the president. Of course.)
The only other really exciting thing we did in HCMC was get some great massages. (Well, Julie and I did--hooray for having another girl to travel with!) What's so exciting about massages, you ask? Oh, not much...except that they were given by the blind! Yup, the Ho Chi Minh Blind Association trains people to become masseurs so that they can have a skill with which to support themselves. The environs are not so posh, but the massages we got were quite good, and at $3 an hour, have to be among the cheapest massages in the world.

I expected that the massages would be Thai-style, in which you leave most of your clothes on, but actually they were more Swedish-style oil massages. So, how does a blind woman who doesn't speak your language communicate to you that, oops, you actually need to take your shirt and bra off? I'll just leave it to your imagination. And no point waiting for her to leave the room while you finish the disrobing she started--I mean, it's not like she can actually see you naked, right?

That night, we bade the far south adieu and hopped on an overnight (and half the next day) train to Danang, about halfway "up" the country. I managed to sleep for around 12 hours (those massages really take a lot out of me!), but Andy kindly took some shots of the countryside so he could later show me what I'd missed.
Once we were off the train, we engaged a taxi to drive us to Hoi An, a historic town about 45 minutes from Danang. After some haggling with the driver, we all agreed on a price and happily hopped in the car, excited that our long journey was finally almost over.

But the driver had other ideas. About halfway to Hoi An, basically in the middle of nowhere, he demanded more money than the fare we'd agreed to. When we refused to pay it, he pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned it off, sat back, and crossed his arms. Sweet!

Clearly, he didn't know who he was dealing with. We sat him out. And after about 10 minutes--when he finally realized that Andy was not doodling idly on that piece of paper, but writing down his name and taxi license number--he caved. Mumbling, "I'm sorry," and confirming that the original price was now OK with him, he turned the car back on and drove us the rest of the way to Hoi An. Victory for the tourists! Shockingly, this jerk did not get a tip from us.

We were ready to relax in Hoi An, but it turned out that Hoi An wasn't quite ready for us. It seems we had arrived on the eve of an international choir competition, and almost every hotel in town was completely booked out. It took two hours to find what we're pretty sure was the last room in town--thanks to Andy, who ultimately went off searching on his own while Julie and I sat with the bags. Finally, we were settled.

After dinner, we poked around town a bit. Full of historic buildings, cute bridges, and about 10 tourists for every Vietnamese person you see, Hoi An is, as Andy dubbed it, kind of like "Vietnam Epcot Center." But, pretty, especially when lit up at night.

Hoi An is also the number one place in Vietnam to get made-to-order clothes, and having a new work wardrobe tailor-made was Julie's modest mission while in town. Andy and I tagged along for the ride, and I ended up getting a couple of dresses made myself (when in Hoi An, you know...). Hoi An is filled with shops that look like this one, with sample clothes displayed on mannequins and endless fabrics to choose from--almost all of which are, of course, "Thai silk" (i.e. polyester).
When not shopping, we took in some historic sites, like the Japanese Bridge...
...and this traditional wooden house, which has a neat altar suspended from its ceiling. Amazingly, the family that lives in this house moves all of its furniture up to the second floor during the rainy season each year, when the first floor floods. They have a trap door in the ceiling of the first floor through which they move the larger items.
While Julie browsed in a button shop, Andy made friends with a gigantic beetle. Despite threatening the poor creature with the hideous insides of his mouth, Andy ultimately let it go.
Wow, an actual Vietnamese person on the streets of Hoi An! The pole-balancing-two-baskets is a popular, human-powered conveyance for all sorts of items in Vietnam.
Rawrrr, I'm a dragon! I'm leading the parade that opens the international choir festival, featuring teams from all over Southeast Asia! And one from Estonia! You'd better start singing, or I'll eat you! Rawrrr!
Hoi An was touristy, but it had some terrific food (which Julie will write about in the food post!)--we even took a cooking class, which Julie will write about, too. Also, in the process of taking that class and having clothes made, we got to know some real Vietnamese people, which was nice. But, time to move on.

Another taxi (no extortion this time!) and train ride (same class, same price as the first train we'd taken, but for some reason, far smaller, harder, dirtier a bonus pair of live roosters in a crate outside our compartment door who started crowing at dawn and didn't stop for hours) later and we were in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and largest city in the north.

Hanoi has almost as much crazy motorcycle traffic as Ho Chi Minh City. And, when we arrived there, it was really cold. But it also had some interesting sights to take in, and a lot of lakes dotted throughout the city. And you can't drive a motorcycle on a lake! So, there was a little respite from the urban craziness there.

Our first stop was the Temple of Literature, a temple dating from the early 1000s, dedicated to Confucianism and scholarship. The best students got their names inscribed on a turtle-supported stela, like this one. Is that incentive to study hard, or what?
Many nice substructures in the temple grounds. I can't remember what this one was for, but it's pretty, no?
Instead of our usual temple statues of the Buddha, here we get a nice statue of Confucius, complete with beard. I knew nothing about Confucianism before visiting this temple, but now, thanks to its informative signs, I know next to nothing.
You aren't allowed to ring the giant bell outside the Temple of Literature, but no one says you can't hug it!
In fact, this local man actively encouraged Andy to get inside the bell. Once inside, Andy had a religious experience and now says he needs to eat nothing but ice cream to survive and will never wear a coat again. Wait a minute...
Since we hadn't gone out of our way to see much Vietnam War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam) stuff yet, we made a visit to the Hoa Lo prison, a.k.a. the "Hanoi Hilton." This is where American POWs, including John McCain, were held during the war. It has now been turned into a museum.
The few cells preserved for display were pretty grim. Most of the displays in the museum were about how the French abused the Vietnamese who were held at the prison during colonial times, but then there are a couple of propaganda-filled rooms that document how wonderfully the American "guests" were treated when they were held there. If they are to be believed, it was tennis games and Christmas dinner every day, and of course no torture, not ever! America certainly committed its share of atrocities in the war, but these displays were pretty laughable in their one-sidedness.
And what prison would be complete without a gift shop? Nothing like touring a prison to put me in the mood to buy a laughing Buddha.

This brings me to the end of my allotted portion of Vietnam to write about. I don't want to throw out too many spoilers, but can a nation that provides you with your worst taxi ride and your worst bus ride (that tale still to come) in 60 countries possibly redeem itself? Stay tuned to find out.

1 comment:

  1. I just have to comment about the excessive power lines in Vietnam. They are absolutely crazy, hung in the thousands on every pole, and little lose ends dangling down onto the sidewalks!! Crossing the road in hanoi was one of the more this-might-really-be-the-end moments of my life, you just have to walk directly into a stream of moving traffic... aagh!