Sunday, December 13, 2015

Northern Vietnam

Here is the second-last trip update. Almost there!

We’ve now arrived in Hanoi. It’s a slightly smaller city than Ho Chi Minh City, but it seems way crazier. I liked Ho Chi Minh City better because it seemed less crowded and overwhelming, but others in our group said the exact opposite. I would have liked to spend more time wandering around on my own in both cities so I could make a more educated decision. You’ll have to go and decide for yourself. Better yet, I’ll go back some day and let you know. Or better still, let’s go together.

Our hotel in Hanoi was the least luxurious of the entire trip. The lobby looked promising, but the rooms were 1990’s Super 8 at best. There were windows into the hallway in some rooms, tiny outside windows, showerheads that sprayed the whole bathroom, and an unpleasant odor. After some of the five-star rooms we had up to this point, this hotel was pretty disappointing. But the location was good and we spent almost no time in our rooms so it wasn’t a big deal.

Some of things we did in Hanoi included a visit to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison where US senator John McCain was held during the Vietnam war. It was grim. Nothing good happened there. 

We also had rickshaw rides, saw a water puppet show and toured independence leader Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace. His mausoleum is there too; normally you can go visit him but his body was currently in Russia for its annual maintenance. Ironically, in his will Ho Chi Minh specifically requested to be cremated because he didn’t want a fancy mausoleum nor burial in order to save farmland (where people are usually buried). But the government thought an extravagant mausoleum would be nicer.  

Soldier guarding the mausoleum

One of Ho Chi Minh's cars

The original plan was to stay two nights in Hanoi, then one night on a boat in Halong Bay, then one more night back in Hanoi. But at dinner on our first evening, my BFF Nap (the tour company rep) came to me, all grim and white-faced: it turns out there was a VIP visiting the area that we were scheduled to go to the next day and everyone else was banned from that area. This caused Nap and the guides a lot of stress, since they had to switch our Halong Bay stay to the next day so that we could still do everything on the original itinerary.  This was one of the only times anything remotely negative was said about their communist government. It was very clear that our guides were passionate about giving us the best possible Vietnamese experience and they were worried that we would be unhappy about the switch-up that they had no control over.

There were only minor inconveniences due to the change – people had been looking forward to settling in for two nights in the same place – but the whole group was very good about it and took the news well. The guides weren’t able to book us on the same boat that we were scheduled on, which turned out to be a good thing because we got an even nicer one.
So the next morning, we took a three hour bus ride to Halong Bay. Our stay in Halong Bay was my favourite 24 hours of the trip. We took little commuter boats to our larger boat anchored in the bay. Then we were off, enjoying the peace and quiet of cruising around, seeing tall rock formations, caves, and other boats. The boat was beautiful. All the rooms had a balcony; ours had a window in our bathroom. We could have soaked in the Jacuzzi while enjoying the scenery. But the best place was the top deck. It was totally open so you had a 360 view of the bay. I can’t describe it; it was so beautiful and amazing. So I'll show you lots of pictures instead.

I was pretty happy for a break from scheduled activities, so when they announced that there would be a boat ride to see a floating village shortly after we embarked, I skipped it. I had a little nap, then went to read on the deck. When Dale and the rest of the group got back, of course they said it was the best thing they’d ever seen and they couldn’t believe I’d missed it. But my nap was pretty awesome too.

We were very well fed – there were a lot of meals in those 24 hours. The food was delicious – I can’t remember exactly what we had but I’m sure it involved spring rolls and shrimp and rice and something on skewers and more seafood. There was musical entertainment after dinner and the crew even did a little fun dance. The crew works hard. Dale and I got a sneak peak of their living quarters in the belly of the boat. It reminded me of the Non-such at the Manitoba Museum, except messier. There weren’t enough rooms for all the guides, so some slept on massage tables. I felt guilty about the disparity in our sleeping conditions, but they were all so lovely and accommodating and gracious and somehow convinced us that they liked sleeping on massage tables.
Our room

Our bathroom

The view from our bathroom

The view from our bed

Tai chi on the deck

We took a smaller boat to this island beach. We climbed a stone stairway and entered a cave.

View from the mouth of the cave. I think the boat on the right is ours.

In the morning, there was tai-chi on the deck, a delicious brunch, and an excursion to an island cave, followed by a big lunch. We all would have loved to stay one more night, but off we went back to Hanoi. 

Gardens in the countryside

We got back in the late afternoon and were free the rest of the day, including dinner. I was looking forward to exploring on our own and getting some street food for dinner, but Nap invited Dale and I out for dinner with him and his wife. We couldn’t say no, but I told him we wanted to go where locals go.  They took us to a pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) shop with plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk and meat hanging from hooks by the cash register. It was perfect. The pho was delicious and Nap and his wife were fun to hang out with. They both spoke English well. Then they took us to a coffee shop for locals – no tourist could find this place if they tried – where we sat on a terrace on the 5th-ish floor, overlooking a park. It was one of my best memories of the trip. I also love Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and had it every chance I got.

On the way back to the hotel, I bought some silver bangles. Each street specializes in something different. This was a silver street; near our hotel was a wedding favour street and we also passed mirror streets and picture frame streets and fan streets. At the silver shop, they weighed the bracelets and multiplied it by the current selling price of silver. After I bought them, the shop lady took me to her kitchen in back of the store, soaped up my hand and wrist and slid the bangles on. They’ve been on ever since.
The next day we went on a long drive to Nimh Binh province. There we had boat rides from senior citizens who rowed with their feet on the oars. The sales pressure was on; other senior citizens rowed around us taking photos of us with Nikon cameras to sell us at the end. Along the way we were pressured to buy coke and chips for our rowers, linens and other crafts, and at the end, they wouldn’t row us to shore until we tipped them. And if we didn’t tip enough, they still wouldn’t bring us to shore until the guides on land intervened. There was a woman hounding me to buy photos but I said “no thank you.” (we often did buy things people were selling, but I didn’t feel like buying the pictures because I didn’t love them floating around us telling us to smile every 30 seconds). Finally I made it to the safety of the bus. But when we stopped at our lunch spot up the road, guess who pulled up on her motor bike?! Part of me wanted to buy the pictures because she was so persistent, but the other part of me didn’t think it was a good precedent to set for the next tourists, so I didn’t. It’s not a great feeling for anyone though. That was by far the most aggressive selling on the whole trip. One other time in Cambodia, a cute little girl asked one of our group members for money. When the woman said, “sorry, no,” the girl’s nasty side came out. She yelled after her, “F*&$ off and bad luck at the casino!” (a lot of tourists come to gamble). We laughed pretty hard at that one.

We went through a few tunnels.

Rowing with their feet left their hands free to try and sell us things or talk on their cell phone

Hanoi seemed more political than the rest of Vietnam. There were more large communist signs and flags and propaganda. I've hardly touched on the political aspect of Vietnam. The guides were very open to questions but I'm not sure if they always answered truthfully or just the way they were taught. But if you're looking for an interesting place to visit in every possible way, Vietnam is your country. I'd go back in a second. It was beautiful, safe, rich in history (good and bad), and the people were kind and humble. Here are a few more scenes from Hanoi:

And that was pretty much the end of Vietnam. I was sad to leave Vietnam, and even sadder to say goodbye to Nap. He was a great guy and took such good care of our group. 

Next and final stop: Cambodia.


Anonymous said...


That's it. Wow.

Anonymous said...

What a great telling of your adventure!!

xo Sio

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