Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Vietnam [July 21 to July 25, 2007]

We added Vietnam to our itinerary somewhat late. We needed visas to go there and we thought it might be better to just spend two weeks in Thailand. However, we decided to go for it, paid the $160 for our visas and booked the tickets ($145 per person from Bangkok, roundtrip). Looking back, we are very pleased that we did. We had a great time; it is a neat country. We only spent time in the north (Hanoi and Ha Long Bay), but the found landscape beautiful, the people nice enough, and most things to be very cheap. We walked out of the airport without a hotel reservation and found a taxi. We were quickly taken advantage of by a jerk of a taxi driver that demanded twice the fare on the basis that there were two people. We weren't yet accustomed to forceful arguing for such things and stupidly paid twice the going rate. Oh well - live and learn. We went from hotel to hotel, on foot, and finally found a guy that called around and found us a place with vacancy ($35 per night).


Hanoi, with its 3.5 million people, is a densely populated, chaotic place full of street vendors, markets, and mopeds. This part of Vietnam was formerly a French colony, which is why they (fortunately) use latin writing characters (unlike any other Asian country we've been to), meaning you can at least try to read phonetically. We stayed in the Latin Quarter, reputed to be the nicer, more tourist-friendly part of town. This photo is a typical street scene in this area. The moped volume was particularly striking - there are far more two-wheeled vehicles on the road than cars, buses, or trucks. Basically, everywhere you look, at all hours, the road is a sea of scooters.

Not only are the Vietnamese quite daredevil on scooters, but they are also very willing to load and overload them with both people and cargo. On different occasions, we saw scooters loaded with a driver, plus: up to 4 additional people, multiple pressurized gas cylinders (a frightful combination given Vietnamese driving habits), many full 5 gallon water jugs, 5 partially butchered pigs, a full-size (dead) cow, and a huge variety of other goods and products in ridiculous volumes. The really unique loads are hard to get pictures of, but here is a shot of a guy with a very modest load of mats.

We spent the first couple days wandering around Hanoi. We visited the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which provided a good cultural overview. After our visit, we elected to skip the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex where we could have seen the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh that is stored there (except for the annual three-month period when the corpse is sent to Russia for 'maintenance') and took moped-taxis (one for each of us) to get lunch. This was followed by a particularly strong attempt by our drivers to renegotiate the terms of our ride to twice the price. We quickly learned that this is normal and to simply stonewall them.

On the subject of comical negotiation, we also visited a huge market (see picture) where Karen got herself a new "North Face" backpack for about $6 - clearly a knock-off, but probably a laughably high price to locals. Check out the size of the clothes 'shop' that Karen wandered into here.

As for food, sidewalk 'cafes' (a fire, a pot, some plastic chairs, and a cook) are the norm. We didn't take that plunge. However, it wasn't too hard to find restaurants and food that we wanted to eat. Ladies wander around all the time with the classic conical hat and the balance-style baskets hanging over one shoulder, usually full of some kind of fruit for sale. One lady slung her baskets onto Karen's shoulders to force a photo opportunity, and then demanded a tip when the picture was taken. She wasn't pleased with the $0.33 she received in return for the unsolicited exchange, but at least we got a funny photo.

Around Hanoi - Perfume Pagoda
Using our hotel as a base (we switched to the hotel with the helpful guy - 3 Star Hotel for $28/night), we traveled to a place called the Perfume Pagoda and took an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay to the east. The Perfume Pagoda is supposedly a bit of a Buddhist mecca; it was worth our entertaining day trip. It went like this: hotel pick-up, 2 hour crowded van ride, 1.5 hour row-boat ride, 20 minute gondola ride (cable car - note, as we were repeatedly told, that the gondola was of Swiss design), 1 hour hike down, strange lunch, and retracing the first three steps in reverse. The scenic photo at the top of this posting is from this trip. It really was a beautiful place. There were several adjacent shrines and temples (see picture for typical look).

The he Perfume Pagoda, is not even a pagoda - it is a cave with a shrine in it at the top of a mountain. The story goes, at least according to our guide, that the cave is the mouth of the dragon (dragons are one of four sacred creatures in Vietnamese, and probably other Asian cultures - the tortoise, dragon, phoenix, and the a slightly different version of a unicorn), and the tail of the same dragon is located somewhere in Japan. This belief apparently came from the fact that at some point in history people from Japan engaged in pilgramages to the Perfume Pagoda to pray to Buddha, after which earthquake activity in Japan became less common (due to the piety, our course). A couple pictures of the cave (which had lots of bats) and shrine area and of our guide praying to the Buddha in a temple are below. The shrine itself was in the back of the cave and surprisingly had neon lights over it - fairly out of place and very tacky.

After climbing down the mountain and eating lunch, we headed back towards our sheet metal aquatic chariot (to be described below). On the way, we passed a monestery and road under construction. This construction work, like most in developing parts of Asia, is a little rough and quite unsafe. These guys (most without shoes and all without hardhats) are working on a new monestery and these LADIES were working on the road - shoveling and moving rocks in their conical hats and flip-flops.

This brings us to the boat rides, which were probably the most memorable part of this daytrip. There was a concrete boardwalk with basic sheet-metal rowboats and old women with conical hats. Our old lady, who had to be well over 50 years old and couldn't have weighed more than 90 pounds, rowed like a Clydesdale. There was no talking, no resting, and no fluctuation in the pace of her strokes. It was awkward to have this small older woman, for 1.5 hours each way, row our boat with its four big Americans and our Vietnamese tour guide in addition to herself. We literally had 2 or 3 inches of freeboard on the boat. We sat on small wooden planks - like a 2x4 - two people per 'seat'. Those three hours on the river in the direct sunlight were undoubtedly the hottest and sweatiest hours of our entire trip around the world. Here are pictures of the boat dock and river and of the row-lady and us in the boat (no gloves).

On the way back, we made a stop at a silk factory and market. We apparently visited the same shop that Bill Clinton did on his trip to Vietnam (he was the first US president ever to visit Vietnam). We saw how silkworms are cultivated (check out the sample wall of cacoons), how silk is woven (with an automated loom), and bought some silk stuff for cheap - a shirt for $3 and two neckties for $4. One other interesting thing was the concept of snake wine. Apparently Vietnamese people drink it to enhance their virility. Check out the bottle of snake wine - you can see one of the snakes' heads towards the top, just left of center below the water line.

Ha Long Bay
We took an overnight trip to a place called Ha Long Bay, which is on the northeastern coast of Vietnam, just across the Gulf of Tonkin from western China. The place is famous for the projecting rock islands that come out of the sea. The Vietnamese associate these sharp islands with the spines on the back of a dragon under the water. We stayed on a fully-equipped junk boat, the Huy Hoang, in a fairly nice cabin with air conditioning and a private bath with shower. All meals were included, as was transportation from and to Hanoi - all for a total of $54 per person - not bad. We had lunch on the boat (see picture) - whole fish, spring rolls, and a variety of other vegetable dishes. Eating from common, central plates is normal.

The scenery is pretty amazing. We passed some cave where they apparently filmed a part of a recent James Bond movie as well as a floating village where people actually live (see picture - it looks like a bunch of barges, but they are houses and buildings).

Then we made our way to a place called Amazing Cave, which is a very large grotto/cave that they have converted into a tourist attraction. It has stalagtite and stalagmite formations that strangely resemble the four sacred animals. It also has a very fallic stone projection that the guides eagerly point out and have installed a red spotlight on it to draw your attention.

This overhead shot of a bunch of boats communicates the tourist volume in this area - it is tolerable, but clearly a hot spot. Each of those boats is a cruiser similar to ours - each with a target tourist type. We were on the young people boat with western tourists - Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Danish, and Australian. There also appeared to be more family-oriented western tourist boats, as well as others for different groups of Asians - Chinese, Korean, etc., which seemed more lively and had Karaoke late into the night. Our boat moored, as did all the rest of them, in a broad open harbor. The weather was nice and the water was warm, which made for a nice evening swim. Check our Karen's leap off the roof of the boat into the warm waters below.

That night, we chatted with our fellow guests, had a few Tiger beers, and had a nice sleep in our little cabin - one last night of vacation before our departure for China. In the morning, we motored back to Ha Long Bay harbor, had lunch, took the bus back to Hanoi, and went to the airport. Finally, we were taking our last of the series of 14 flights that took us around the world. We were Shanghai bound, where we have started our next great adventure.

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