Laura's Vacation Blog

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Xin Chao Vietnam

Our travels to Vietnam are our first to Asia and first to a developing nation. I would say that in my travel planning, I might have overlooked that "developing nation" part and set my expectations elsewhere. I think both of us were a bit surprised by how poor much of the country is and how much pollution and population we encountered. It didn't help our impression that we both ended up a little sick in the last few days of the trip, myself with a stomach bug and the onset of an upper respiratory infection. (I'm blaming the ice in the drinks and the burning garbage and motorbikes). On the other hand, we were also surprised by how warm and welcoming the Vietnamese were to us, despite the atrocities committed by the US only 40 years ago.

Justin and I picked Vietnam as a bit of a compromise. We had two weeks budgeted for a trip and while I had my sights set on India or China, Justin was thinking Thailand would be more his pace. Vietnam ended up filling a lot of the criteria that we were looking equal mix of city and beach, civic attractions and recreation. We planned to take a junk boat cruise, go kayaking and scuba diving, lay on the beach, visit museums and pagodas, take a cooking class, take frequent advantage of the cheap spas and massage parlors and sample the local cuisine.

We took a red-eye flight via Taiwan to Hanoi and arrived in the late morning on Sunday. I had been very successful in sleeping on the flights so amazingly the timezone adjustment wasn't bad. Upon arrival, the hotel staff met us at the airport and on the 45 minute ride into town, I practiced my Vietnamese language on the driver. It was a disaster. It isn't enough to pronounce the word correctly (which is hard enough) but you also have to lift or lower your voice just so to deliver the correct meaning. We both were very lucky that English was understood well enough for us to get by because neither of us had put enough effort into learning key phrases to actually communicate effectively.

We spent our first day getting acquainted with a little corner of Hanoi near the north side of Lake Hoan Kiem, getting lost in the narrow and crowded streets and getting milked for dinner at a restaurant catering to tourists (we figured out fast that the good food was an eighth of the price and eight times tastier if you went where the locals went).

Here's a video of us crossing the street in Hanoi. It is incredibly scary and amazingly neither of us were run over but the opportunity is high.

Our hotel had arranged a 2-night/3-day junk boat cruise around Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is a geological marvel; a huge bay with nearly 2000 limestone islets or karsts peppered around. With the low-lying mist and fog we experienced, it had a mystic feeling. Our junk boat, the Prince II, was a 4-cabin junk and probably one of the nicer ones that we came across in the bay. There were 3 other couples on the boat in addition to the crew and our tour guide, Tony. We spent the morning driving out to the bay from Hanoi (about 4 hours) and spent the afternoon cruising out to sea. Once we reached our first gunkhole, we launched kayaks and paddled around a grouping of karsts. 

It was on this kayak ride that we came upon some fishermen using dynamite to make their catch. (Scary!) Awareness of the environmental consequences of such action appears to be low or of low concern still in Vietnam.  It is apparently illegal to fish this way but there are few police assigned to enforce these laws.

It was a little chilly in Ha Long Bay. We were hoping for 70+ degree weather but we ended up with something a little cooler. But, the cold weather didn't stop us on the first night from a dip in the water. Both of us launched ourselves off the upper deck.

Justin went first in a blur.
In the morning after breakfast, we visited a floating fishing village. Here, the fishermen and their families live in house boats on the water. They have a very simple life in their tiny community (Maybe around 50 people). Some of the women from the village rowed out in little boats to meet us and take us to their village. We sat together at their common house and shared a cup of tea followed by a shot of Vietnam moonshine made from tree bark.

The floating village beneath the towering limestone bluffs.
The Prince II crew took us to a lovely beach for a barbeque lunch. It was so windy and chilly though that no one really wanted to swim and we were all bundled up in the warmest clothing we brought for the lunch. We read on the beach, took photos and had a huge feast for lunch. We may have had a shortage of sunshine on this boat but not of food.

Our beachside picnic table set for lunch.
Our last day on the boat, we tidied up after breakfast and went into shore to visit a cave that had been discovered on one of the islets.  There are caves all over these karsts and many of the tour operators have built up some infrastructure (i.e. trails, backlighting in the caves) to support bring visitors to these caves.

We were off the boat around noon and headed back to Hanoi. Back at the hotel, we set out to explore a new corner of Old Town. That evening, our hotel sent us a block over to an alleyway for a delicious pho ga (chicken noodle soup) for $1.50 each.

Our first full day in Hanoi, we were up early, showered and ready for a big day of sightseeing. Up first: the Temple of Literature, a tour book must-see. I think we were the first tourist to visit the temple that day -- the place was deserted. This was really lucky because the place is really serene if no one is there. It wasn't so serene when 100 forth graders showed up on a school field trip as we were leaving. The Temple of Literature was Vietnam's first university.

The gardens and court at the Temple of Literature

The stelae of doctor laureates: engravings with the names and birthplaces of the graduates from 1442-1779.

Next, we made our way over the the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum by way of the tree lined streets full of embassies. The Mausoleum is a site! It is a monolithic building and as far as I could tell, it houses only a single tomb (and a see-through glass one at that). Uncle Ho, as he is fondly called by the Vietnamese is a highly revered figure in Vietnam. Although he did not wish to be entombed this way upon his death (but rather cremated and ashes spread around Vietnam), his ceremonial resting place holds great importance to the people.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

After finishing the tour of the mausoleum and accompanying grounds, we made our way over to the Dong Xuan market. This market had everything including just about every overloaded motorbike stunt you could imagine: shoes, fabric, clothing, crafts, vegetables,spices, live fish, skinned frogs, meat and cosmetics. We bargained for silk scarves and handicrafts and then found lunch down a smokey alley: bun cha. I think this is the meal that Justin will remember when he thinks of Vietnam in the future: pork patties wrapped in basil leaves and grilled and served with noodles, lettuce & herbs and a bowl of tarted-up fish sauce for dipping. It was delicious food and overwhelming ambiance. Motor bikes were zipping by while a portable house fan blew smoke from a charcoal stove all over. We ate fast because it was tasty but also to save our lungs from the carcinogenic fumes and smoke.

We were getting a lot of mileage out of the day and by 1:30 our feet were tired and we decided we needed to check out the local massage parlor. It is a little different than the spa in Seattle where privacy is a primary concern. In Hanoi, the masseuse says "take off your clothes" and then stands there while you strip down. The same story in reverse happens when the massage is over and you want to get dressed. Oh well. The actual massage was great though.

Miscellaneous dried fish for sale at the market:

Later in the evening we met up with a former colleague of Justin's who is now working in Hanoi, Jim. Jim took us to a Bia Hoi joint (fresh beer served by the liter) and we caught up with Jim over beers and seafood hotpot.

We started the day with a Vietnamese cooking class at a restaurant not far from our hotel. It was just Justin and myself and one other couple from Holland. The instructor took us to the market to pick up a few supplies (shredded green papaya and banana flower for a salad and rice paper for making spring rolls). It was nice to have someone local take us to the market so I could point and ask "what's that?" at all of the foreign foods for sale. Back at the restaurant, we prepared spring rolls (fried in oil), a green papaya and banana flower salad and a chicken stir fry. For me, the spring rolls (and the technique for rolling them) were the main take-away. I doubt I'll make the other recipes again...they weren't standouts. We both had fun learning some new techniques and playing with some new ingredients and enjoying a huge lunch with the other couple.

Here we are wrapping up and "graduating" from our Vietnamese cooking class.

On Friday afternoon, we made our way down to the French Quarter of Hanoi and stood outside of the famed Opera House. There really wasn't much going on in the French Quarter and we accidentally overlooked the few attractions in that neighborhood. We did find a little foot massage parlor that I insisted we check out. Both Justin and I got a little more than we bargained for at this place. Most people would think that when you ask for a foot massage you will get your feet massaged and maybe your lower legs as well. Well, this place seemed to think that the rest of the body needed to be kneaded and pounded as well and with little language in common, we were at the mercy of the men delivering the service. Justin said he felt like he'd just been beat up when the foot massage wrapped up. It was a little intense at times.

For dinner, and a belated Thanksgiving, we met up with Jim again and his crew of expats at a local restaurant that was putting out the T-giving spread. We had a huge western feast for dinner (with a few Vietnamese interpretations thrown in) and had some great conversation with the group of construction managers with whom Jim works.

Our gravy-laden Thanksgiving dinner.

Our final day in Hanoi, we opted to check out the Museum of Ethnology. This museum has artifacts and examples of all of the distinct ethnic groups in Vietnam. There are costumes, cooking vessels, crafts and examples of housing displayed. We even caught a 45 minute water puppet show at the museum. 
A traditional long house as found in Vietnam hill-tribe areas.
 An extremely overt carving outside of a tomb.
 Water puppets!

We left for the Hanoi airport before sunrise and flew down to Phu Quoc Island on the southwest coast of Vietnam, near the Cambodia/Vietnam border. Phu Quoc is known for its fish sauce factories and pearl farms and miles of sandy beaches. It was a big contrast from the smoggy, busy city we just departed. As soon as we arrived, we swapped our traveling clothes for swim suits and flopped down on two chaises on the beach. The resort's restaurant had cold drinks and lunch made to order. We spent the better part of the afternoon lounging in the hot sun, trying to stay comfortable by taking an occasional dip in the ocean. By late afternoon, we were sufficiently tanned and ready for some action so we rented a motorbike from the hotel and scooted into the town center. The night market was just getting started and the sun was just setting. We watched the sun set over the beach and then found a place to eat at the market.
Sunset in Phu Quoc

My dinner of snails! (I thought I'd try something a little different)

Several of the food stalls had amazing spreads of the fresh catch. You just point at what you want and they'll cook it up for you.

Rainbow Divers took us on a fun dive on the north end of Phu Quoc. This dive outfit had more guides than paying customers so Justin and I had two guides for just the two of us. Our first dive at Turtle Island was really cool. It took a bit of time to find the reef but when we did we were rewarded with a ton of different corals, nudibranches, a couple of crabs and a bunch of fish (but fairly small ones). We had an hour out of the water and then did a second dive which was a total bust. The second dive was the "Nudibranch Garden" but I'm not sure we ever found it. We did see a little stingray and a couple of conches but no nudibranchs. However, we both ended up with blisters on our feet from the fins. Other divers said they saw all sorts of marine life so I'm pretty sure we missed the show.

A view of the harbor and Phu Quoc Island from the dive boat.

When we got back to shore, I had a killer bad that I ended up sleeping it off for the afternoon. Justin spent the afternoon sunbathing at the resort and even took the local women up on the offer of a massage and manicure.

Our tans were our primary concern on our last day on the Island. We were up early and in the loungers on the beach right after breakfast. I hired the local massage & nail service for a little tune-up and Justin finished up the 1000 page book he brought along.

Our beachside loungers
Takin' a dip.

In the afternoon, we rented the scooter again and rode out to a pearl farm. It was hotter than hell and the dirt road we had to traverse stuck to our skin. The pearl farm was really just an elaborate jewelry showroom. We did get to see a sea turtle that the store had in captivity. We headed back into town and straight to the ice cream parlor (which was open but without power). I had a banana of the more delicious ones I've ever had because the bananas in Vietnam are superb. We tried to check out the fish sauce factory but it didn't look open to visitors. Justin and I sat down at a street-side cafe for a beer. Afterwards, we strolled through the night market and picked out our dinner from the fresh catch display.

I woke up sick on Wednesday with a stomach bug and sore throat. We had a plane to catch back to Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and I toughed it out and tried to hang on until we got to our next hotel. We arrived in HCMC around 9am but the hotel wouldn't let us check in until noon which was rough. Justin and I found a pho place near the hotel and I tried to eat breakfast but it wasn't sitting well with me. We found a park a couple of blocks away and sat down to kill some time. We met a Vietnamese man in the park who we talked to for a while. With about an hour until we could check in, we decided to have a seat in an air conditioned bakery. Justin had a snack and I had a soda. Finally, noon arrived and we checked into the hotel and I took a long nap and tried to feel better. Justin was also feeling a little under the weather. What a sad sight! Only two days in HCMC and we were spending one in the hotel. We slept the afternoon away and decided to try to find a western-style meal for dinner. We ended up at a pizza joint down the street from the hotel which had rather lousy pizza but it didn't make me sicker so I was content.

With only a day in HCMC, we wanted to make the most of it. We were up early and took a cab over to the Reunification Palace but the place was closed to tourists because the Thai diplomats were using the facility. The cab driver told us it would open in the afternoon. Instead, we went to the nearby market. I was still feeling a little queasy and my nose was dripping like a faucet coupled with sneezing every 5 minutes. We made our way through the part of the market selling intestines and beef livers and into the textile and handicraft areas. We both picked up a few souvenirs and some local sweets to take home to share. At this point, I decided I couldn't continue so Justin and I split up and I went back to the hotel and he went on to the War Remnants Museum, a museum devoted to the American-Vietnamese War and earlier wars with the French.

This makes you reconsider the omnivore's diet.

Remnants of the American War:

At 1pm, we met back up to visit the Reunification Palace.

Rebuilt after the war and renamed when the North & South reunified.

That was about all that we had in us for sightseeing while ill. I was a little bummed because HCMC seemed like a neat place to explore and there were plenty of pagodas and other attractions to check out that we had no energy for.

Our afternoon flight to Taipai had been cancelled and we'd been rebooked on an earlier flight which meant a long layover in the Taiwan airport and no time for exploring HCMC in the morning. We packed up and readied ourselves for a long day of traveling. With nearly 5 hours to spare in Taiwan, we checked out every gate, including C3.


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