Halong Bay Bungalows

The 3-day tour was supposed to include a night of sleeping on a “junk” (boat) in Halong Bay, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t do that, so I stayed in an island bungalow for two nights instead of just one.

And I “got to” put up and use mosquito nets for the first time!

The word “Bungalow” sounds ordinary and boring, but these were thatched wooden huts right on the sandy beach- in the middle of nowhere.

You can only reach it by boat.

The arrival was dramatic, as we chugged up in our wooden dragon boat to this long dock which speared out into the bay.

As we walked down the bouncing, creaking, floating footbridge, we approached the edge of the bungalows, where people were emerging from their cabin rooms, looking out into the sunset. It felt like we were entering into this little forgotten land of beach paradise that only a few people in the world knew about.

There’s nothing else there but these 10-15 rustic-looking bungalows, a communal area with a few long tables (where we all gathered for a delicious seafood barbecue dinner), and the long dock that dead-ends out in the still green bay.

And that’s it. You’re surrounded by rock formations, so there’s nothing else there and nowhere else to go except by boat.

And the view from the beach looked like the one form the movie The Beach, even though I know that’s technically in Thailand. I may see it later in June.  🙂

We arrived after a long day of cruising through these amazing waters with green-covered rocks towering all around us.

On our way there was a colorfully-lit dripping wet cave that we tramped through, and a floating village (a la Waterworld) that we chugged past en route to the bungalows in the middle of nowhere.  🙂

 

This was also one of those parts of my trip where I got to meet a lot of lovely people.

A big thank-you shout-out to the Brighton girls who got me chocolate when I was marooned on this island paradise for 2 days and bereft of dessert- Grace, Nicky, Sharon, and Amanda. You guys are great.  And thanks also to the lovely Irish Kerr family and Rochy for being such great company, and for the book.

And to Ron and Jeanne for sharing the dinner feast (and the good lunch recommendation) when we finally made it back to Hanoi after our 9+ hour journey of bus, boat, boat, bus, boat, boat, bus. (I think. I kind of lost track.)

It was quite an adventure.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is amazing. The karst limestone formations rising straight up from the water look like something out of a fairy tale. Actually, Halong Bay means “descending dragon”, and it did appear to be a place where dragons would live. Of course, this inspired a short conversation about Game of Thrones with my new Irish friends as we traveled through this unnatural beauty on our boat.  The name comes from the pattern of the island formations, appearing to be like an undulating dragon’s body, but it’s such a mythic-looking place that you could picture exotic creatures winging their way around these other-worldly sights.

One of the tour workers pointed out interestingly-shaped formations by their names. There was a cat up on one cliff, a dog nearby, and a woman on another. They explained that these rock sculptures would continue to narrow at the bottom as the salt water eats away at them from below until… one day… they would fall down and disappear.

 

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Masoleum on one of my last days in Hanoi.  Apparently, the poor man wanted to be cremated, but instead has been lying in state in a large square gray granite building in Hanoi since 1975. I was told the mausoleum was open until 11:30am or 12, but when I arrived the lines were very long, it was 10:30, and they told me it closed at 11am.

They also mentioned that the left luggage office also closed at 11, so I’d have to get back to it quickly to get my backpack, which wasn’t allowed in. That left me 20 minutes.

A Spanish solo traveler arrived at the “left luggage” window at the same time as me, and together we ran off to the line, with the admonishments of “hurry, hurry!” coming from behind us.

We soon joined the line, skipping ahead of 2 blocks of people who were waiting to see the museum, as well, which stays open longer. The line moved really slowly, so I asked a few other guards, who each gestured us to jump ahead in the line. In the end, though it felt like we had cut in line very unfairly, (but repeatedly and with permission), we successfully hustled through the exhibit with time to spare.

That was a lucky thing, because we were directed a block out of our way at the end and had to run several blocks back. We did manage to just barely make it back to the left luggage office in time.

Seeing Ho Chi Minh was interesting and unsettling.

The idea is that you move through the hall quickly, without lingering.

It reminded me of another type of visit, in London. While the Tower of London places people on a moving conveyor belt that passes the crown jewels, HCM’s mausoleum had guards who grabbed your arm and propelled you along, almost into the people in front of you.

The visit to the Mausoleum made for a quiet, dark, crowded, and solemn experience… until the anxious/giddy run back to the luggage office, of course.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Usually, being a walker is a benefit as a traveler. You get to see more of a city, find some hidden treasures, interact more with locals, and get some exercise to work off all the good food you’re discovering.

But so far in Vietnam, I haven’t found walkers to be a particularly relevant or important part of society. I’m often the only person walking down a road – not even the locals walk more than a block or two, it seems. EVERYONE has a motorbike, or a bicycle. The country seems so anti-walking, in fact, that though there are broad sidewalks, they are usually covered with parked motorbikes, or people sitting on stools outside their shops chatting, or mounds of dirt and construction materials, and pop-up restaurants/weber grills/food carts which take up the whole sidewalk with their cooking apparatus, ingredients, and tables and mini-chairs. So I often end up walking in the street, simply because there isn’t any room to walk on the sidewalk.

Also, almost half the people I see on motorbikes wear masks over their mouths. They hook over your ears and cover the entire lower half of your face. (Some extend to cover necks and ears, too.)  I’ve been told the masks are popular because people value light skin, so they do this as sun protection, but I also see some people wearing them at night- not as many, but a few. And the reception person at my hotel said that many people wear them for the “dirty atmosphere”, too. So I spent my 40 cents to buy one for myself, because my throat is a little rough, I’ve almost lost my voice, and I think defense against all the air pollution here will help out my laryngitis a little. And this way, I get to keep walking.  🙂

Here are some street and (blocked) sidewalk scenes in Hanoi:

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The Imperial City

The entire city of Hoi An was declared a UNESCO site, (there are only 7 in Vietnam) but Hue has a UNESCO area, too- The Imperial City. I spent hours walking around this enormous walled fortress on the banks of the Perfume River.  (One source said it has a circumference of 10km.)  It was built for the Nguyen dynasty emperors, with the work starting in 1804.

Surrounded by a moat and stone walls, it contains the emperor’s palace, and many temples and family buildings.  And, strangely, 2 elephants. The koi pond was the other “interactive” component of the site. I bought a little bag of fish food to throw in the water and enjoyed watching the resulting noisy frenzy.

Though it was heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam war, there were some buildings that survived, and many others that have been restored. But they were hard at work on continuing to reconstruct the many crumbled buildings that remain there. And there were a few areas that resembled the old ruined castles I used to tramp through in England as a child…

… stairways leading to nowhere, doorways from the outside- to the outside, opening from roofless walled rooms onto grassy green courtyards.  I can’t imagine how grand it must have looked two hundred years ago, but the parts that remain today are beautiful.

 

I loved the dragons that line some of the stairways and appear to be flowing down them to greet… or maybe threaten you?

The symmetry and size of the buildings is impressive, as are the colors and detail that decorate the gates, roofs, and lintels.  Besides food, a peek at another country’s culture and history is my favorite part of traveling.  And what could be more fun than getting to walk through a place called “The Forbidden Purple City”?

 

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Train travel in Vietnam

I got my first taste of cross-country train travel during my quintessential college Eurailing experience. Seeing Vietnam by train has been equally enjoyable. The train is such a great way to see more of a country and its landscape- often one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of a place.

 

I’ve been taking the Reunification Express, all 1726 km from the South (Ho Chi Minh City) to the North (Hanoi) with several great stops along the way.

Apparently you can get a very cheap open-ticket for a bus along the same basic route, but you miss much of the scenery, and you don’t get a chance to sleep in the train!

It’s not only a nice way to avoid a night’s hotel cost, but also a very relaxing way to travel and spend the night. The cost is even cheap enough to enable one to spring for a soft sleeper with air conditioning (Nam Mem Dieu Hoa) for many parts of the journey. But you don’t need it for the short bit between Da Nang and Hue, which also might be the prettiest.  The train curls along the side of beachfront cliffs, hugging the edge of the green mountain. What views!

On one of my journeys, I made friends with the little Grandmother sharing my cabin. Since I had a middle bunk, she invited me to sit on her lower bunk with her in the morning while we ate breakfast.

I had the chicken rice soup from the train’s food trolley, and she had brought her own rice and chicken. After I thanked her for the taste she gave me, she then cut part of her chicken meat off the bone and chucked it onto my plate. I have to admit it was better than the train food.  Then it was time for peek-a-boo with the little girl in the cabin next door. I encouraged her to pose for some photos, and when I handed her my sunglasses to wear, she immediately put one hand on her hip, and assumed the pose of a runway model.

I’ve got some great video of her parading up and down the train passageway. At one point, I thought I wasn’t going to get my sunglasses back. Despite the language barrier, we all got along very well and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to spend time with ordinary Vietnamese citizens.

The train can be a great way to meet people and immerse yourself in a country.  Plus, it just seems more, I don’t know, romantic and traditional than a bus. There’s something to be said for traveling “old-school”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streets in Vietnam

I’ve now been in 5 cities in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Danang, Hoi An, and Hue) and I have to congratulate this country on having the most consistent and helpful street signs I’ve ever encountered before- anywhere. Considering that I’m no expert on the Vietnamese language, it’s so reassuring that almost every street corner (and I think it really was every single one in HCMC) has street signs, so you don’t ever have to get lost.

And every hotel I’ve stayed at has given me a handy little free city map, so I just carry that around in my pocket, and I’ve never been lost here for more than 1 block. It’s fantastic.  It’s really helpful considering that the street names in each city are at least 50% the same as in every other city. I keep seeing the same street names repeated in each new part of the country- all the way from the South to the North.  Everybody has a Hai Ba Trung and a Dien Bien Phu, several Nguyens, and a Le Thanh Ton, etc, etc.  I know we have a “Main Street” in every town in the US, but many of these streets are named after important historical figures or sometimes serve as descriptions of the items sold on each street. And that’s an historical practice in itself. Regardless of the name origin, I’m glad that the Vietnamese are invested in keeping me from getting lost!

These are just some little shots from the streets of Hue, (much less crowded and crazy than HCMC, for the most part) and a view from my hotel room in the evening.

Coming up soon… The Imperial City!

Just a taste of Vietnamese food

Pate AND peanut butter? Well done, Vietnam!  I’ve sampled the massive hotel buffet breakfasts, and the meager bread and juice offerings. And I really liked the noodle soup breakfast, except for the fact that the soup was hot, and the dining room was hot, and because it was in the mid-90’s outside, I was hot, too…  this heat is making it a little difficult to sample all of the country’s best dishes. On a hot day, I just don’t usually feel like eating hot food. But I’ve managed some, of course, and will include a slideshow of Vietnamese food highlights in a future post.

It’s nice to have tea in the morning, and even nicer to be given sweetened condensed milk for it.

I have to mention that I keep finding mint leaves in my meals. It’s unexpected, but it works.

I haven’t eaten anything distinctively Western yet (except salads, I guess). Honestly, you could easily visit and eat no Vietnamese food at all. You can get pizza, sandwiches, and spaghetti everywhere. But since I haven’t been eating those things, I’ve found that I’ve been craving cheese. But I do see blocks of Edam, etc, in the little markets. Perhaps there’s some remaining French influence here after all.

Gorgeous Hoi An

Hoi An is a lovely place. If I previously awarded any other city the title of “Most Beautifully Lit at Night”, I hereby rescind it and bestow it upon Hoi An, the city of lanterns.

 

 

The warm, multi-colored glow is just gorgeous. It makes you want to buy a lantern in every color to transport the feeling back to home.

 

 

 

I even took a lantern-making class at Lifestart, a nonprofit where adults with disabilities make all the crafts in the shop.

 

 

 

 

Fellow traveler Elena did a much better job with her lantern than I did- I think I used too much glue.

 

Even though I didn’t have room for it, I bought a gorgeous fabric lantern from Lifestart. (They do collapse down a little.) What? It’s a good cause!  But now something else is going to have to go in order to make space.

 

 

The rich fabric on the lanterns even looks good during daylight hours. Walking down the street, we passed several stores where people were in the process of making the lanterns. So if we had any doubts as to whether they are made in Hoi An or not, those were taken care of!  And they made their lanterns much more quickly than I made my own.

 

 

 

Here’s where I stayed- I just wanted to reassure you that I’m not still living in squalor.

 

 

 

There are also many shops here selling beautiful paintings on silk and canvas of Vietnamese scenes. In an effort to get you to buy something, sellers demonstrate how they can roll these paintings up and put them in a tube for you. Which would certainly make them easier and less delicate to transport…

 

 

… and yet since the tubes are made of grey plastic, they might also too closely resemble pipe bombs and thus make my next flight a little too eventful.

 

 

Even the Japanese Bridge was lit with lanterns at night. This covered bridge was built around the early 16th century and has a Buddhist pagoda on the other side of it. It is guarded at either end by a monkey at one side, and a dog on the other. There seems to be disagreement about why, but it likely has something to do with the year of the monkey and the year of the dog.

 

 

With all the palm trees and colorful boats, the town bears a slight resemblance to Key West. Except for the constant exhortations to buy a boat ride, of course.

 

 

Even though this town is known for its tailors, who will custom-make any clothing you could possibly desire, in just a few days, and for very little money, I didn’t get anything made. The pyro in me wanted that lantern, and there just wasn’t room for anything else.   🙂

Independence Palace / Reunification Palace

Disclaimer: I know very little about the Vietnam War.

I didn’t really do my research before I came here. In the course of hitting 8 or 9 countries, it was inevitable that I would slack on getting a good history on a few of them. But this outing made me want to gain some understanding and research the Vietnam War. From what I’ve learned so far, it seems extremely complicated.

First of all, there was a lot going on in Vietnam before the war, which is called “The War of American Aggression” here. And the video we watched at the end of the Independence Palace tour in Ho Chi Minh City gave me a whole new set of propaganda that did not at all match with the propaganda I was taught in school.  I know that the US didn’t win the war, and that some only admit that reluctantly, but I had no idea that (per the movie) the Vietnamese had such a glowing and complete victory over the “US Imperialists”. Or that all the POWs were released and went home when the US gave up in shame. I know that’s not right at all.

I’m sure I was not taught 100% truth about what happened, but that movie I watched was certainly not all truth, either.

It’s funny…when I first thought about coming here, I thought I might get a bad reception because the war was not that long ago, and we did invade and kill a large number of people, so I assumed there could be some difficulty in being an American tourist here. But, except for some cultural and opportunistic rudeness which might be worth a future post, people for the most part have been really friendly, and nice, and helpful. Well, the movie I watched at the Independence Palace would explain that nice, friendly attitude as belonging to a smug, dominant victor, laughingly tolerating the wide-eyed, insignificant American tourist, whose country foolishly invaded and then went home with their tales (sic) between their legs. But that doesn’t feel like truth, either.

I think that people tend to be kind to foreigners in spite of our respective governments, and that foreign policy is sometimes a hurdle that people get past to realize that we’re all just human beings, sometimes living at the mercy of our country’s policies and decisions. I’ve found that I feel well-treated when I travel, despite anyone’s feelings about what my government may be doing or may have done. It’s so good to be accepted just for being a person, and not have to worry about being held accountable for your government’s actions. This goes both ways, of course. There are many governmental policies around the world that I do not agree with, but I try not to hold that against ordinary citizens of those countries. It wouldn’t be fair, right?

The following photos are from the Palace- which was preserved in time and reminded me strongly of a Mad Men set. There are beautiful rooms and offices, and there are a large number of war rooms consisting of nothing more than an office chair and one of those old metal office desks with a rotary phone on top. I found the “recreation room” delightful- especially the wine barrel bar at the back. And here’s a link to their website.

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