Vietnam (Việt Nam)

October-November 2003

After having only one month to cover all of China, we were looking forward to having a full month to make our way through little Vietnam. After a last dim sum breakfast in Hong Kong, we caught our plane to Hanoi (Hà Nội). The welcome to Vietnam was not all that could be hoped for. After lengthy waits for luggage, immigration, and SARS screening, we made our way out past dozens of eager taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) to the minibus line. The first minibus driver was confident that he could get our two large bags and both of us into a vehicle that had a total of zero seats left. We were grateful to the locals that told him to take a hike, and we made our way to the next minibus that was merely crowded.

We had a good time talking with the driver and his assistant--and we were the last stop so we had plenty of time to talk. Then in a dizzy rush they got us out of the bus, hotel porters grabbed our bags, and we were ushered into the lobby of our hotel as the minibus drove off.

"Is this our hotel?"

"Yes yes, welcome to the hotel."

"Is this really Hotel ABC?"

"Yes yes, come upstairs and look at your room."

"What's the address of this hotel?"

He silently smiles.

"Show me where this hotel is here on my map."

"It's not on this map, but the hotel is very central."

"This is the wrong hotel."

"Yes, this is the right hotel. Come upstairs."

The conversation continued on for a while along these lines until we realized that they were never going to tell us the name or the location of the hotel we were currently standing in. In the lobby we met another American guy who'd been dumped at the same hotel. The three of us left together and were immediately accosted by dozens of motorcycle drivers. They all happily assured us that they knew the way, despite the fact that we hadn't yet told them where we were going. We said we would walk and asked which way was north. Half a dozen arms immediately pointed in half a dozen directions. Great.

Eventually, despite the help of the motorcycle drivers, we found the hotels we were looking for. We checked in. We read in our guide book about Hanoi. It explains what a quiet, laid-back town it is compared with Ho Chi Minh in the south where scams abound and they'll grab the sunglasses right off your face. We started wondering if one month wasn't a bit too much. Maybe we should leave tomorrow.

But as it turned out, we had a great time in Vietnam once we got used to the way things work. Hanoi was an interesting town with a great old district. You just have to learn how to cross the street. At all times of day and night every street is filled with motorbikes. They don't stop for any reason--including traffic lights and pedestrians. They do, however, slow down to sell you a ride on the back. All of them. In my few days in Hanoi I said no thanks to fifty thousand motorbike offers.

As for crossing the street, you just have to step across and have faith. No, no one stops... but they all swerve around you. It's really pretty neat--like a river flowing around you. Just keep a look out for the occasional car. There aren't many, but there are a few here and there. And they aren't nearly as nimble as the motorbikes.

Cyclos in foreground and motorbikes in background Lots of motorbikes on crazy Hanoi streets

As we got used to the chaos of Hanoi, we started to like it more and more. Great Vietnamese food. Great French food. Great ice cream. We took a day trip out to the Perfumed Pagoda where we got to see some beautiful countryside and got to hike around without fear of motorbikes and cyclos (little pedal-powered taxis). And we saw some of the nicer temples and museums in town.

Paddling along to the Perfumed Pagoda At the temple neighboring the Perfumed Pagoda

Next we took a three day tour out to Ha Long Bay. It's an impressive bay (yet another eigth wonder of the world) filled with limestone cliffs rising out of the water, the biggest of which house some impressive caves. We sailed around seeing the nicest caves, spent one night on the boat, spent one night on Cat Ba Island, and then spent an afternoon on Psychotic Monkey Island. The monkeys stole our towels, but the guard there got them back. They stole a Dutch novel, but the guard was eventually able to recover most of it. After that they amused and aroused themselves quietly... until they ate a German tourist. Well, they didn't quite finish her off, but they administered a whole lot bites and scratches on her back, arms, legs, and feet. After that we were more than ready to leave.

Limestone karsts sticking up out of Ha Long Bay Nasty tourist-eating monkeys

Our next stop was the city of Sa Pa in the northwestern part of the country. It's up in the mountains and is quite close to villages inhabited by lots of the minority groups found in Vietnam. We walked to Cat Cat village where the Black Hmong live. We spent a day in Bac Ha for the weekly market frequented by the Flower Hmong. And we hiked around town through some great hills and gardens. On another day we hired twelve year old So (pronounced "Show") as our guide and spent a long day hiking through rice paddies to three more remote villages. It was a great way both to get some exercise and to see some of the local minority cultures.

View of countryside outside Sa Pa Another view from around Sa Pa Black Hmong men transporting a pig Livestock market in Bac Ha village Taking a smoke break between sales Flower Hmong women View near Bac Ha Lazy buffalo outside Sa Pa In the middle of our tour with So

Rather than return to Hanoi by overnight train the way we'd come, we hired a jeep with a few other travelers and made it into a four day excursion. We had a great time with Philip, Emma, Alex, and our crazy guide, Chang. We visited lots of little villages, saw various points where the French were defeated, and got introduced to lots of local specialties at the markets--exotic fruits, sticky rice snacks, dog, rice wine, etc.

Somewhere in northwestern Vietnam HP, Alex, Emma, Philippe, and Angela at typical Vietnamese restaurant Testing some of the old artillery at Dien Bien Phu French bunkers at Dien Bien Phu One of many pauses during our drive for road construction

After the jeep trip we continued traveling with Alex for the next couple of cities. Having seen the north, we were now making our way down to the south. The first stop was Hue. We walked over to the old citidel and spent an afternoon in the Forbidden Purple City. (Nice name even if it didn't look very purple to me.) The next day we took a motorbike tour to the interesting sites around town. The tombs and monestaries were interesting, but we would perhaps have enjoyed them more if it hadn't rained cats and dogs on us most of the time. Oh well.

Excellent dragon banister in Tu Duc Tomb in Hue More of Tu Duc Tomb Monks in secluded temple outside Hue

Hoi An was the next stop. The town itself was nice, and the main attraction is the huge number of tailors on every street. Angela and Alex got suits and skirts and dresses and pants, while I got a pair of shirts. I've never had a tailor made shirt before, and for US$8.00 they're hard to turn down.

I also took advantage of some great local food. I had Cao Lau for almost every dinner. It's a local specialty made from thick noodles, pork, green leaves (sorry, I don't know exactly what they were), and a garnish of pork crackling. It's hard to get outside of Hoi An since the recipe is secret and you need water from the wells in Ba Le area to make the flour.

Japanese bridge in Hoi An One of the (many) fittings

Then we said goodbye to Alex and visited some Champa ruins in My Son. The only problem was that they weren't kidding. They're really ruined. Pretty boring really, and the rain didn't add to the ambiance. Next we stopped off in Nha Trang. Boring. In fairness, we found it to be boring since the only draw is diving, but this is the off season. So we went straight on to Dalat.

(Boring) Champa ruins in My Son Angela makes a few tapestries for friends Seriously Big Budda in Nha Trang

The town of Dalat isn't as nice as we'd hoped, but we had a good time during our brief stay. We took a tour around the village with the Easy Riders. We also got firsthand accounts of how farming is done along with stories about how things were during the war. Villages, waterfalls, strawberries, coffee, and rice (of course). It was a great one day tour.

And finally, after a month that seemed to last only a few days, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't wilder. It's more sprawling than Hanoi and doesn't have the old town feel, but it wasn't overwhelmingly larger. We did standard tourist trips out of the city to see the tunnels in Cu Chi and to the Mekong delta. Doing the trips on our own might have been nicer, but we didn't have too much time and the cost of organized trips was unbeatable.

Cham ruins of Poklongarai Towers between Nha Trang and Dalat

The trip to the Cu Chi tunnels first included a stop and the Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a combination of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Geniism, and Taoism. Respected saints of the Cao Dai include Joan of Arc, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and Lenin. I'm not making this up. Anyway, the temple was impressive, and the bright colored robes make for a very impressive ceremony.

Cao Dai ceremony with colorful priests

After that we got to climb through the underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the American War (as it's known over here). There were also all manner of booby traps on display, and the guide provided some interesting details about how people had lived during the war. The most surprising was their use of coconut milk for transfusions when no blood was available.

The tunnels are too small for my shoulders The Cu Chi tunnels--now lit for tourists--are still pretty small

Our final trip in Vietnam was along the delta of the Mekong river. The scenery looked just like the Vietnamese jungle scenes you know from movies. I kept telling people, "Never get out of the boat." And, "Kurtz got off the boat." But the guide kept saying things like, "Now it's time to get off and look at the coconut handicrafts," and, "Now we try the honey and see the coconut candy factory." No one paid much attention to my advice, but it was still a good trip.

Don't get off the boat. Exploring the Mekong Delta Cyclo outside the War Crimes Museum (now the War Remnants Museum)

Last modified: 7 December 2003