Red = Cycle Green=Train/Bus
Like every country, Vietnam has both a light side and a dark side, although the light side far outshines the dark. Both make for a very interesting and enlightening visit. In this narrative, I'll try to give my impressions of what I saw and experienced here, both good and bad, and let you draw your own conclusions. In short though, I highly recommend Vietnam as a travel destination for anyone.
You can learn some facts about Vietnam from the CIA World FactBook, Britannica or Encarta. Vietnam is about 3% of the size of the U.S. or 80% the size of California. It's longer and narrower than California, so the distance from Hanoi to Saigon is about the same as the distance from Oregon to Mexico. In latitude, it extends roughly from the level of Mexico City to Nicaragua. This gives it a fairly wide climate variation, but generally warmer than the U.S. Vietnam's population is 30% of the U.S. population, giving it a population density about eight times the U.S. or roughly double that of France. It's population is about 2 1/2 times that of California, so the population density is about triple that of California.
No discussion of Vietnam by an American would be complete without some mention of the protracted war between the two countries, which lasted almost 30 years. Over here, it's called The American War. This makes perfect sense for two reasons. The first is that Vietnam War wouldn't be very specific, since there have been wars in Vietnam off and on for thousands of years. The second is that the war was entirely driven by American objectives. Vietnam was never any kind of threat to America in any way. I have a lot to say about the war, and I think there's a lot to learn about how the world works by studying it. However, I don't want this narrative to turn into a big discussion of the war, because that's not what the bulk of the visit was all about, and it was over 25 years ago anyway. So, I will say most of what I have to say in a separate page which you can read or skip as you choose.
The local currency is the Dong. It's abbreviated VND, and there are roughly 15,000 VND per USD (U.S. Dollar). Like Egypt, Vietnam has abandoned coins altogether, and all money is paper. The smallest note is 500 VND (.03 USD). When I got back to Thailand and had some coins given to me, it suddenly hit me that I like the paper money only system and I'd like to see all coins abolished. Coins are a pain in the neck, and it doesn't really become apparent how much of a pain they are until you don't have to deal with them for a while. Australian coins are the worst, with a half dollar being roughly the same size and weight as a brick.
The name Ho Chi Minh comes up a lot in any discussion of Vietnam. He is widely considered one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century. He was the president and chief architect of the communist strategy that ultimately beat both the French and the Americans. His name is usually abbreviated to HCM.
The term expat is short for expatriot. Technically, it means someone that has imigrated to a country from somewhere else. I'll use it in that context, but I'll also use it to mean people that are long time visitors but not permanent residents, since it's hard to tell them from permanent residents.
The former capital of South Vietnam was named Saigon for about 100 years. The name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in 1975 when the communists took over. I started out calling it Ho Chi Minh City, but most of the time nobody knew what I was talking about. This was partly because the word "City" is an English word, and the Vietnamese name is different, and partly because if I called it "Ho Chi Minh" for short, they wouldn't really connect that with a destination. When I actually learned the Vietnamese word for "city", nobody ever recognized what I was saying, partly because my pronunciation was so bad, and partly because nobody actually believed anyone would ride such a funny looking contraption that far. After a while, I started calling it Saigon, and instantly everyone did know what I was talking about. It turns out that the new name doesn't seem to have stuck all that well. Most people I met still call it Saigon, at least when when talking to foreigners. I picked up the habit of using Saigon, and for the remainder of this document, I'll call it Saigon or HCMC depending on the whim of the moment. This is not intended as any disrespect for Ho Chi Minh, but simply bowing to local custom (I suspect Ho Chi Minh would have objected to the name change anyway). Besides that, Saigon is easier to type.
In the map shown above, you can see my trip in a series of lines. The green lines represent places where I took a train or bus. The red line shows the places where I biked. I spent about three weeks in Hanoi before the start of the trip, and made a side trip to Ha Long Bay as well. The cycling part of the trip took 13 days of cycling, plus several rest/sightseeing days for a total of 22 days. The official part of the bike tour is 1100 km (685 miles), or about the same as riding from Redding to San Diego. I added a bunch of distance around Hanoi and Saigon for a total of 1,800 km (1100 miles) inside of Vietnam. At the end of the trip, I spent about six weeks in Saigon, and for a while there appeared some danger I'd never leave. All told, I spent 3 months in Vietnam.
The cycling part of the trip was a supported ride from Sena Tours, which I would call a cycling/culinary tour. This is a small touring company owned by Marcel Hendricks. The tour was absolutely fabulous, and I'd highly recommend Marcel's company for anyone wishing to do bike touring, and of course I recommend bike touring for everyone. He does tours in lots of different parts of the world, including Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and Bolivia. Marcel is a strong cyclist that once spent four consecutive years cycling around the world. He now lives in northern Thailand, and operates his company from there, cycling about 13,000 km (8,000 Miles) per year.
The tour was absolutely spot on (have to use my new Aussie vocabulary while I can). We stayed in very good hotels in every town, and had three excellent meals every day. It's a supported ride, so there was a bus that could hold all the cyclists and all the bikes. The bus was used for sightseeing trips, as well as support for any bikes that broke down, or any riders that wanted to rest for a bit (if your ego could stand it... mine couldn't). Our local guide Leah rode with the bus, and arranged all the meals, hotels and local guides for the sightseeing tours. She tried to have every meal include something we hadn't had before. Marcel rode with the group. The tour cost is very reasonable, and the price includes all hotel charges, meals, the bus, the driver, Marcel and Leah. His trip in Thailand is even less expensive because Marcel lives there and has his own bus. All in all, it's a good bargain, and Marcel and Leah run a very good show.
This particular trip had a smaller group of cyclists than usual. There were just two couples from Belgium, plus me. All of the others are much stronger cyclists than I am at this point, so I got the distinction of being the slow one. Here's the bike gang on a river boat going to see Phang Nha Cave, which is the biggest cave in Asia.
A lot of people have asked over the years: "Why Vietnam?". I say "over the years", because I've been talking about visiting here off and on for 15 years. I've always had trouble answering that question succinctly.
I really enjoyed Hanoi, and it's even harder to define why I liked it than Bangkok was. On the surface, it appears to be a run-down, crowded, dirty, noisy, busy and strange city. It looks like when the Viet Minh kicked the French out in 1954, the French took all the paint with them and it was never replaced. It takes a bit of time to really get a feel for Hanoi, and come to appreciate it's charms. In the end, I was quite happy that I spent enough time there to get to know the place. After one or two days, I would have come away with a negative impression, but after a week I had a very positive impression. I'll try to go through the impressions as they came to me, and maybe you can get a sense of the place from that.
My first night in Hanoi was a mixed bag of messages, but my overall impression was completely favorable. Customs was easy and efficient. I'd been led by the guidebooks to expect a hassle there, but it turned out to be as easy as everywhere else I've been. They did make me open my bike box to be sure there was in fact a bike inside, but that was it. I got a cab for the trip into the city, and the traffic seemed to be like a cross between Cairo and Bangkok. The horns are back in full force, but the accepted use of them is different than it is in Egypt. The mix of vehicles is considerably different from either place. There are LOTS more bicycles than I've seen anywhere else I've been, and there are lots of moto-bikes. By moto-bike, I mean the ubiquitous bikes I mentioned on the Thailand page. They look like a scooter, but have big wheels like a motorcycle. Most are 50-110 cc, and 110 cc is the limit unless you have a special permit. Cars aren't exactly rare, but they aren't crowding every block either. I rode in on a highway where about 60% of the traffic was cars and trucks. Within the city, the ratio seems to be more bikes and moto-bikes, and less cars. The driving style appeared to be quite chaotic, and somewhat intimidating. Since I'd already seen Cairo and Bangkok, it wasn't shocking, but it was different. All in all, I was inclined to have a favorable initial impression, partly because I just assume any place with a lot of bikes can't be all bad.
After checking into the hotel, my impressions went back down again. Walking out of the hotel put me smack-dab in the middle of a large collection of touts and hustlers. It felt like being back at the pyramids again, except that my fuse was already shorter than it was when I started out. This naturally pissed me off, and my impression went back down. I however persevered, and tried walking for a few km around the city. It turns out that there is just a constant low-level aggravation in all third world countries, consisting of people trying to sell you something. I've never gotten away from it when on foot in Vietnam, Thailand or Egypt, and don't expect to get away from it in any other area frequented by tourists. The most annoying are the transportation providers. In Bangkok, it was the Tuk-Tuk and Moto-Bike drivers, and in Vietnam it's both the Cyclo drivers and the Moto-bike drivers. If you get away from the tourist areas, it gets a bit better but it's always there. I did learn how to wave these guys off quickly and efficiently, so at this point they're still annoying but not all that bad. As for the pack of buzzards at the front of the hotel, they got to know me after a couple of days and left me alone, at least for the first block. Now I should point out that Etienne says he's had good results with these guys by giving them a smile and a polite "No Thank You". That's certainly a more friendly technique than mine, so you should try it out.
Wandering around Hanoi at night, the major impression is one of darkness. The energy consumption per person in Vietnam is less than 1% of what it is in the U.S., and about 2% of what it is in France. One of the results is a very low number of street lights. I didn't feel unsafe walking around in the dark, but it was definitely a dark experience. A typical block will have 1-3 street lights at most. It's also a pretty quiet town at night. There isn't a lot of action on the streets, and most of the bars and clubs appeared to be closed or at least mostly empty.
The most amusing thing that happened that first night was running into a drunk Australian businessman. We had a ten minute conversation that didn't even come close to making any sense. It was amusing though, and somewhat symbolic of the whole experience. He would go on and directly contradict himself twice in the same sentence. That was a good start, because lots of things in Vietnam seem to work out that way, and talking to a drunk Ozzie was good training for my first night in Australia.
The next day, I walked about 10 km (6 miles) observing the place, and my impressions shifted from mildly positive to distinctly negative. First off, I couldn't walk more than a minute or two without having to shake off a couple of touts trying to sell me something. The offered commodity was mostly transportation, but it somewhat regularly veers off to drugs or women. It seemed almost as bad as Egypt, and distinctly worse than Bangkok. The other thing that contributed to the bad impression was that everywhere I looked, the place showed signs of absolute poverty. Almost nothing was painted or well repaired, and most of the places I looked appeared to be dirty, grimy and run-down.
Now I should point out that I walked the same places a few days later, and my impressions got better. The better impressions were because I got a bit better at observation, and noticed that the places were not as dirty as I originally thought. This place is desperately short of money so the buildings are run-down unpainted and unrepaired, but the people keep each area as clean as it seems to be possible with what they have. I found that if I wandered by a typical place and just glanced at it, all I'd see is that it looked dirty. After looking closer, I'd see that the common area was swept clean, and kept clean. The furniture was old and worn, but well taken care of. Lots of little things like that added up to making my impression be one of people that are poor, but not lazy or uncaring. I distinctly got the impression that they are doing the best that they can with what they have, and after I stayed around for a while, I could start to see the areas where the overall level of prosperity seems to be swinging upward.
During the course of the next few days, I wandered around the city for about 10 km each day. Gradually, I started to notice the one thing that really stands out about visiting Vietnam. I didn't quite realize it at the time, but in retrospect this is the time when I really started to love the place.
The thing that really stands out about Vietnam is that the people are very friendly. I will without any qualifications say that on average, the Vietnamese people are the most friendly, outgoing and welcoming people I've ever met. Since I've traveled well over 1,000 miles of road on a bicycle, and spent three months here, I think I can speak with a tiny bit of authority. Everywhere I go, people go out of their way to smile and say "Hello". At first, I was a bit suspicious that they were saying hello to my wallet, and a fair number of the foreigners I met here firmly believe that. I have since decided that that is not usually the case. They're just very friendly people, and they seem to treat all visitors that way. This is despite the fact that I can't speak more than a few words of Vietnamese, and most of the time people don't understand those few words. Of course, the persistent touts are still a constant source of annoyance, and in Saigon lots of the people were definitely saying Hello to my wallet, but on the whole this is balanced out by the reactions from the rest of the people. I've done some rough back of the napkin calculations to quantify this. So far, I've had what I would consider to be distinctly unwelcoming responses from exactly 11 people. On the other side of the coin, I've received a smile and a "Hello" or a few questions about me or the bike from well over 5,000 people. It's hard to argue with a ratio like that. I've also had a lot of people try to extract money from me, but I've had many more people that just wanted to talk and be friendly for a few minutes. In Egypt, exactly 100% of the people I interacted with were trying to get money from me. Here the ratio is much better.
I attract a lot of attention here, even when I'm not cheating by using the recumbent bike. Just walking around attracts a lot of attention, and pulling out a guidebook, map or laptop increases the attention dramatically, especially in places like Hanoi or any of the towns in the interior where tourists aren't very common. Naturally, some of it is from touts, but I've pretty much learned to disregard them by now. The rest is just from people that are curious and friendly. During a typical day on foot, I'd say "Hello" to one or two people every few minutes. The people I talk to will be anything from kids of three or four years old, right up to adults and seniors. Most of the places I've been, people are either trying to hustle me for money, or completely ignoring me. Here, it just doesn't work out that way, or if they are hustling me they aren't doing a very good job of it.
Part of this is because tourism is relatively new here. From the fall of Saigon in 1975 up until the mid 90s, Vietnam had practically no tourism at all. This is mostly because of exceedingly stupid blunders made by the communist government, which proved itself to be almost as bone-headed as the American government. Now tourism is on the rise, and it's one of Vietnam's major sources of hard currency, but the typical Vietnamese everywhere except Saigon hasn't seen enough tourists to become jaded yet. I'm sure they will be eventually, since tourists even annoy me and I'm one of them<g>
As soon as you travel anywhere interesting, you'll run into the age old money conversion issue. If you can do multiplication and division in your head, you're good to go. If not, you may find these suggestions helpful. A lot of these are old Indian tricks my father taught me back in the days before there were calculators (yes, I'm that old). If you find any particular suggestion confusing, just move on to the next one.
While we're on the subject, here are a couple of safety tips for dealing with money:
During my first few days in Hanoi I put my bike together, and observed the traffic. I noticed that the vehicle mix is considerably different from what it is anywhere else I've been. If I stand on the corner outside and count for one minute, I'd see maybe 50 moto-bikes, 20-30 bicycles, 4-5 cars, and 5 cyclos. In a lot of ways, the traffic appears even more chaotic than in Cairo. There's a lot more diversity of vehicles, both in size and speed. In Cairo the rules were chaotic, but the vast majority of the vehicles were either cars or busses. This means there's a lot more happening in any particular stretch of street in Vietnam. The traffic rules appear to be quite flexible. There are very few stop-lights, so intersections seem to be a complete bonzai experience.
As an outside observer, it appears to be very dangerous and probably is. I saw surprisingly few accidents during my trip, and only one of those was serious, but I've heard of high accident rates that I couldn't verify. One thing that's not obvious unless you think about it is that even though things look very chaotic and hectic, a very fast rider will be going around 30-40 kph (20-25 MPH), and most of the riders in the cities are going less than 20 kph most of the time. In fact, after three months in Vietnam, I found traveling at 60 kph (40 mph) in Bangkok to seem frightening. In western countries, it's quite common to spend hours every day traveling in much bigger vehicles, much closer together and much faster. A typical California freeway generally travels at around 110 kph (70 MPH). American drivers have just a few milliseconds to respond to trouble, and the consequences of failure are much bigger.
Naturally, once I thought I understood the traffic, I just got on the bike and started riding it. It was a bit scary at first, since I really only had a total of about 6 hours on the bike before I tackled Hanoi traffic, and I wasn't entirely sure I could handle it in a bad situation. It's sort of like deciding you need to learn to swim, so you go down to the deep end of the pool. Then you decide that isn't sufficiently motivating to promote proper learning, so you tie on a few bricks. It was a bit nerve wracking, but in the end it all worked out with no problem. I've only had a few close calls during my entire trip in Vietnam, and every one of those would have been a close call or a crash on a diamond frame bike.
I can definitively tell you though, that the first time you hit one of those bonzai intersections, it's quite an experience. It's similar to the intersection I described in Bangkok, but worse. In Bangkok, the very busy intersections generally require each car to stop, and then kind of crawl through the intersection. In Vietnam, everyone goes through as fast as they can, while dodging and weaving around the other vehicles. Even for an old hand like I am now, it can be a bit intimidating at times. The other difference is that the sheer number of vehicles in an intersection in Vietnam can be much higher than it was in Bangkok, and people tend to slow down a lot less. In Bangkok, a large percentage of the traffic is cars and Tuk-Tuks. In Vietnam, the vast majority is bicycles and moto-bikes. This means a busy intersection can have a lot more individual vehicles than a similar intersection in Thailand.
Now with the experience of the last thousand miles and six weeks in Saigon (which is even more bonzai than the rest of Vietnam), I can tell you a bit about how traffic works here:
Most traffic rules are somewhat loose. This chart shows the rough translation for some common traffic signs:
|We'd like a fairly high percentage of you guys to be going this way, and if you aren't going that way try to stay over more or less on the right side of the road, if it's convenient.|
Do Not Enter
|If you enter here, be aware that there will probably be vehicles coming at you that you'll have to dodge. You'll probably want to keep towards the right side of the road.|
|You might want to consider staying within this lane if you're a foreigner. It won't do you any good because the locals won't, but it might make you feel better. (Bikes and scooters wander all over the street, and the cars and trucks just dodge around them. At any given time, any lane appears to be OK for either direction, based on the conditions of the moment.)|
|When you guys get around to it, you might consider stopping. That is of course presuming someone else wants to go through in the opposite direction. It would obviously be stupid to stop stop when there's nobody else trying to use this intersection.|
|OK, it's your turn to go but don't get too wild about it since the guys responding to the stop sign will probably take a while to get around to stopping.|
|We're short on either red or yellow lights. Look at the position of the light and figure it out from there. Note the same rule applies for blue lights on the bottom.|
|Either the light is broken, temporarily or permanently; or it's in the middle of a very slow flashing yellow cycle. In any case, just quit whining and go through.|
Now, this doesn't mean that chaos rules. It just means that the system is different, and you have to understand how it works to fit within it. For example, even though the stop light rules are fairly loose, most people do stop for lights when there's someone in the other lanes to use the intersection. The flow's a bit different than in the U.S. When a light turns red the traffic starts winding down much like with a yellow light in the U.S., and correspondingly when the light turns green for the other direction at the same time, the traffic gradually starts going. At least, that's how it usually works. On the other hand, most intersections only have one light at the spot where traffic is supposed to stop, and there isn't a light on the other side. This means that the people stopped at the front of the intersection where they actually do stop can't see the light. You have to either watch the light in the other direction, or wait for people behind you to honk or start moving to know when it's green. Sometimes a few people get jumpy and start going early, and that starts everyone else going before the traffic in the other direction has even received the red light.
The other thing to note is that a lot of what I said above is how it is, but that doesn't mean it that's how it's supposed to be. For example, the police will happily pull you over and ticket you for going the wrong way on a one-way street. In fact, in Saigon they have a few "one-way-traps". These are streets that have two way traffic, except for one little half block section. They'll sit there and just wait for someone to come through, and pull them over. When this happens, you pull out 50,000 VND and you're on your way in minutes (more on corruption later)
So far, the worst problem I usually have is that people see a big white guy on a funny bicycle, and assume that I don't know how to drive in Vietnam. This makes pedestrians and other vehicles stop or dodge when they would ordinarily keep going. This throws my timing off because I'm driving assuming they know how things work here, and that makes for a collision course when I aim for the spot they should be vacating, and they stop. I've taken to talking to myself, and my favorite expression is "Dude!! Don't Panic!!". Of course, they can't hear me and wouldn't understand if they did, but I find it somewhat satisfying... or neurotic. I'm not sure which.
So all in all, Vietnam traffic was intimidating when I first started, particularly since I wasn't all that confident that I could handle my bike in an emergency. My first real panic stop was funny as can be because I applied the front break a lot too much. The bike dutifully stood up on it's nose, or at least felt like it was. In reality, I don't think the back tire actually left the ground and all I did was compress the shock, but it was funny and made the locals laugh even harder than usual. In the end though, it wasn't nearly as bad or intimidating as I thought it would be, and if you come to Vietnam I'd suggest you just quit whining and start riding. It is better to start in Hanoi than in Saigon, and somewhere in the middle like Dalat or Hue would be better yet. Any of these are quite workable for anyone with a modicum of skill and nerve. Just watch the traffic on foot for a few hours before you ride in it, and don't start on a busy street or during rush hour.
As you can tell, I've concentrated mostly on the traffic from a cycling perspective, but it also bears mentioning that walking here involves a certain amount of nerve. Sidewalks are used almost exclusively for commerce, work areas, or parking scooters. What they aren't used for much is walking. If you want to get anywhere, you pretty much have to walk along the edge of the street and just not get all excited about cars, scooters and cyclos whizzing by you. Crossing the street also requires some nerve. In Cairo and Bangkok, I found that if you were just patient you could get a clear spot in traffic after a short wait. In any busy part of Vietnam you would want a long time for that. With that in mind, you eventually just have to start crossing in the middle of traffic. Basically, you just start walking slowly across the street in the middle of traffic. You watch the vehicles to make sure they'll dodge around you, but you do have to assume that they will in most cases. You also can't ever really get a clear shot all the way across a busy road, so you have to watch one direction and wander over into the middle of the road while watching the vehicles coming at you, and then turn your head and watch the other direction as you cross the rest of it. Of course, that doesn't always work because other vehicles frequently cut corners or drive the wrong way or whatever else it takes.
The second funniest part of the traffic is that I'm so accustomed to it now I act like a local. If you remember my chapter on Egypt, I stood and stared in awe at a girl that was crossing the Fifth of July Bridge. Now I routinely do things just like that and think nothing of it.
The absolutely funniest part of it is that I'm writing this in Brisbane, Australia. The traffic here is very orderly and efficient. Almost nobody jaywalks, or even thinks about speeding or running a light. However, I find the traffic here scares me much more than the traffic in Vietnam. I feel more nervous crossing a street here on foot, with the light and no cars in sight than I did crossing a busy street with moto-bikes whizzing by on all sides in Saigon. This is mostly because they drive on the left side of the road here so cars keep coming at me from the wrong place, and partly because the cars are big and fast and I'm not used to it. It's irrational but it's the way it is.
During my first week of wandering around I was quite surprised to find that I almost always ended up in some kind of market area. Later, I figured out why. The entire country is a market area. Nearly everyone I ran into has something that they're selling out of the front of their houses. Even people that have some other kind of job will put a glass counter in the front of their house and sell whatever seems to be the item of the day. My old impression of communism was that it was this giant centrally planned conglomeration that didn't leave any room for commerce or business of any kind. This is absolutely not true here, and in fact this is the most commerce dense place I've ever visited. There are residential areas that don't follow this pattern, particularly the more wealthy areas but most of the areas I happened to run into definitely fit the bill.
My hotel was directly adjacent to the Old Quarter. This has been an artisan and craftsman center continuously for 600 years. This is particularly impressive, since the communists technically didn't allow trade for 20 years after the American War. Here you'll find people hammering relatively nice silver works using the sidewalk as an anvil. I saw some absolutely beautiful silk outfits there, as well as baskets, lacquer-ware and some other good artisan type things. You will also find just about any imaginable commodity that's available in Vietnam (unfortunately, a cycle helmet does not fit into that category). This area is one of the major tourist attractions in Hanoi, and I highly recommend it. The nice thing is that even though it's a big tourist attraction, you don't run into all that many of them.
It took me a while to figure it out, but essentially everywhere in Hanoi looks very similar, so describing the old quarter will come very close to describing the whole city. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but not as much of one as you would think.
The typical shop in the quarter seems to have about as much space out front as a bedroom in a typical U.S. house. The shop front is usually about 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) wide, and goes back 3-4 meters (10-15 feet). Most of the shop owners also live in their shop. For an owner with a very nice shop, they'll live either upstairs or in the back, but lots of people have a mattress folded up somewhere in the back, and they sleep on the shop floor at night. There is always one shop room that's directly on the sidewalk. This will have most of the stuff that's for sale in plain view. Some people will have a couch and other living accommodations in the back of this room, while others will just have the stuff in another room. The mix of products is both very eclectic and frustratingly similar at the same time. I know that last sentence contradicts itself, so I'll expand on it.
Part of this is historical. The Old quarter used to consist of a set of craft halls, very similar to the guilds that existed in Europe a few hundred years ago. So for example, the basked makers guild would have a guild hall where the artisans worked, and then a bunch of shops along the street to sell their output. In fact, a lot of the street names in the quarter are basically just the names of the products that were sold on that street. The correlation isn't all that strong any more, but it's still there. This set up a tradition of having a bunch of competing merchants selling the same things, and it has kept up to this day.
So all in all, Vietnam seems to an outside observer to be a country of merchants. Even for people that do some other kind of work, if they live on any street that has potential customers they almost always have some kind of counter out front where they're selling something. Sometimes it's just a small counter with soap and toothpaste and stuff like that, that the kids sell during the day to bring in a few extra Dong for the family. Sometimes it's a the family's main source of income. But on every street I ever traveled in Vietnam, a very large percentage of the houses were selling something out front. Of course, there is lots of housing that's tucked into alleyways or other places without any storefronts, so it isn't like everyone is selling something, but most of the places you're likely to see as a tourist are like that.
Trying to shop for specific things in Vietnam frequently turns into a funny story, so I'll throw out a few.
On one of my first days in the quarter, I found what I would call the "Hardware Section". This is a whole street full of little stores that sell nuts, bolts, fasteners and the like. I didn't have my GPS with me, so I couldn't mark the location, so I just looked carefully at the street and assumed since it was within 4 blocks of the hotel, I would be able to find it again. It turned out that I needed a long screw to properly mount my cycle computer, since it apparently wasn't made with an eye to serving the huge recumbent bike market. I then proceeded to look for that hardware section for over a week. Now mind you, I wasn't looking all day every day, but I was riding around the quarter and enjoying the ride, while also looking for it. The quarter is a very small area, with lots of twisting and turning streets, which is very easy to get lost in or get completely turned around even if you are carrying a compass on your watch. One day I got tired of looking, so I asked a cyclo driver to take me to the area, and he proceeded to ride forward one block, right one block, and right again and there we were. Eventually, I figured out I hadn't been able to find it because I'd been looking for the three days after Tet when the quarter turned into a ghost town. Everything identifiable about the quarter, such as a prominent Stanley sign were taken down, so the area looked just like everywhere else.
In a similar vein, I spent a few days looking for some bungee cords to tie my sleeping bag onto the bike. When I finally admitted defeat, I asked the doorman at the hotel to help me. I then jumped on the back of his moto-bike and we proceeded to go to a set of shops right on the other side of the street, that I rode by every single day. At the third shop we stopped at, they produced the bungee cords no-muss, no-fuss
In Saigon, it was even worse. I wanted some cable ties to re-arrange the brake cables on the bike. I had looked for days for those in Hanoi and finally gave up. I was looking in a huge market area near the hotel that was loaded with hardware, but drew a complete blank. I finally talked to a guy that spoke English and drew a picture for him of what I wanted. He went off for about five minutes and came back with a bag of exactly what I wanted. The very next day, I found the store he had gotten them from, and it turned out I had walked by the display four times.
Of course, these stories just demonstrate what a bad shopper I am, not anything particularly Vietnamese. I'd probably have the same experience in Orchard Supply back home<g>
Another amusing shopping incident happened on my second day in Hanoi. A shop on the island in Ho Hoan Kim Lake had some nice wood lacquered panels that I really liked. There were four to choose from. I had enough VND in my wallet to buy just one, so I spent ten minutes trying to decide between two of them to see which one I wanted. I agonized over it forever, then finally made a decision and pointed it out. The clerk pulled all four panels off the wall and wrapped them up nicely, all ready for shipping.
I ate Vietnamese food fairly regularly back in California, so some of the stuff I ate wasn't a huge surprise. All in all, I'd rate Vietnamese food very good, and on par with Thai food. Like Thai food, it's all much healthier than what Americans eat, and overweight people are exceedingly rare in North Vietnam, and not all that common in Saigon.
The first day I had Vietnamese Porridge, and Vietnamese Coffee for breakfast. The porridge is difficult to describe. Let's start with appearance. It looks like oatmeal, where you put in about three times too much water, and didn't boil it off. The material is rice based instead of oat based. Let's say you wanted to make Oatmeal Soup. Then you decide to throw some green onions and other assorted green bits, and a little meat or chicken. The results are something like a cross between oatmeal and Pho (if you haven't eaten Pho, you should). If you were sitting around thinking, "My oatmeal is kind of boring, let's add some peppers and onions to it, and while you're at it, mix in last night's soup", then you're on the right track.
Coffee is grown all over the place in the Central Highlands. Vietnam is a major Coffee exporter (one of the biggest in Asia). Now that's all well and good, except that most but not all of the coffee I had in Vietnam wasn't very good. When it's made right, and I get the right beans it's quite good, but most of the time neither of these conditions seems to apply. The other thing I really don't like about Vietnamese coffee is that they make frequent use of a French invention where the coffee grounds and water are placed in a metal pot on top of the glass or cup. It's brought to the table this way, and the water percolates down through and makes the coffee in real time. Unfortunately, this works better in theory than in practice, so most of the time you end up sitting for 10 minutes waiting for the water to drip down through, and then get a crappy cup of coffee on top of it. It's frustrating when you know that they do have good coffee, and you can't get any.
Pho is one of the traditional staples of the Vietnamese diet, and I ate quite a bit of it. It's made from rice noodles, that are a bit smaller than the noodles you would get in spaghetti. These are boiled with a kind of soup stock that's usually been cooking from the wee hours of the morning, that includes green onions, some broth, a few other vegetables and who knows what else. When a customer comes in, the cook will take the noodles which are stored in a big ball in the kitchen, and mix it with the soup stock in a small wire basket. While that's going on, the cook will chop up some beef or chicken into small pieces, quickly fry it, and add that to the mix. When it's done, the basket comes out and the Pho goes into a bowel, along with a sufficient amount of stock and meat. On the table, you eat it with chopsticks in one hand, and a soup spoon in the other hand for the juice. You can of course add seasoning as well. You almost always get some sliced orange peppers that are somewhat hot, but not blistering. Of course, I probably should mention that I describe jalapenos as a mild pepper, so you should calibrate the heat level accordingly. The peppers you get are about the same heat as a jalapeno, but without the distinctive jalapeno flavor. The flavor is closer to a Serrano pepper, but they're hotter. You'll also get small limes, which are called Chanh (pronounced Chang) in Vietnamese, and it's a good idea to squeeze them over the Pho. There's usually a bottle of red hot sauce on the table, which is not bad but a bit too sweet for my taste (about as sweet as Tobasco). There will be some greens cooked into the Pho (Bamboo shoots, etc). Some Pho places will also add some other items. For example, ground peanuts are a common and good addition.
Correction: A Vietnamese reader pointed out that this is not quite correct. What I said is a common misperception among visitors and guidebooks. Pho is only used to name the hearted beef soup (originated from North). The soups I mentioned have a bunch of names that can't be printed without the Vietnamese character set. They are cooked differently in towns or cities across the country and therefore, it may have different name depend on where it comes from or what it's cooked with. Pho is very distinct name for itself. That may explain why people kept looking at me funny when I pointed at the soup and calling it Pho or Pha (as my Vietnamese friends called it). I went out for Pho with my friends lots of times, but I think I was always getting the beef variety.
One common part of both Vietnamese and Thai cooking is the use of leaves. Pho will frequently come with mint leaves, and/or some other kind of tree leaves (I don't know what they are). You break some of these up, and eat them with the meal. I'm not really wild about the leaves, but I've gotten used to them and have decided to keep trying them a bit to see if I develop a taste for them. Marcel eats the leaves faster than a Koala bear would.
One very nice part of going on the organized tour was that with Marcel and Leah along, I saw some things I would never have picked up on without them. Leah organized all the meals, and tried to have at least one thing in each meal that we hadn't had before. She would also explain how the Vietnamese eat each item, and Marcel added some tricks that may be Thai or Vietnamese. That's the nice thing about traveling with a group. Now, I'm firmly convinced you shouldn't just get with a bunch of tourists and go "tour" somewhere, because you won't come anywhere close to learning anything about the real place, but doing part of your trip with a group is a good way to work it. Another good idea is to simply hire a local guide. The quality of the guides varies all over the place, but you can usually get a pretty competent one to show you around and explain things to you for a reasonable price.
My favorite drink I picked up on here in Vietnam is called a "Soda Chang". Chang is the Vietnamese word for Lime. They don't know the difference between a lemon and a lime, so most Vietnamese will call it Lemon if they speak English, or Limon if they speak French. The drink is sort of like a do-it-yourself 7-up, but better. You basically take plain soda (Club Soda), squeeze in some lime, and add some sugar. In Vietnam, they have liquid sugar that mixes well with cold water. However, you won't find that anywhere else so you have to get granulated sugar and stir like mad for quite a while and you never actually get all of the sugar mixed in. For the lime, you can use about a tablespoon of concentrated lime juice, or squeeze the juice from about half of a medium sized lime.
Vietnamese meals tend to have small portions of meat, along with bigger portions of rice or vegetable based items. This is partly because of a long history of shortages of meat, and partly just because that's how they eat. You'll very frequently end up with a small portion of thinly sliced meat, fish, squid or something else along with rice or noodles. Most of this region's economy is based on rice (where most of the U.S. is based on wheat and corn), so you'll find rice in one form or another in most meals. Steamed rice is very common, as are several varieties of rice noodles. The meat is an adjunct to the meal instead of the huge main course. Most meals also include some kind of vegetables and/or seaweed. The typical Vietnamese meal is therefore a bit better balanced than the typical U.S. meal, and is also a lot lower in fat. The locals frequently pour some kind of soup over the rice, which I don't really care for all that much.
They also have a lot of fish and other seafood. There's nowhere in Vietnam that's farther than 340 miles from the coast, and most of the population lives within 50 miles so this isn't all that surprising. Of all the fish I tried, the best was something I couldn't quite get the name of. It's a specialty of the North, as it's a fish that only lives in the boundary region between fresh and salt water in the delta of the Red River. It was most excellent, and probably the best fish I've ever had. I also had some particularly good fish in the Mekong Delta region (near Saigon).
Marcel showed us a Vietnamese tradition that's a nice addition to any meal that has small slices of meat. Take a small dish about the size of the soy sauce dish you get in a Japanese or Chinese restaurant. In that, put equal amounts of salt and pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon for 1 person). Then take about half a lime, and squeeze the juice over the dish. You want just enough juice to end up with all of the salt and pepper being wet, without a lot of juice left over. Take the end of your chopsticks and mix the whole thing together. Then take the meat in the chopsticks, and dip it in the sauce. It's quite good, so do try this at home.
Speaking of chopsticks, one of the good things about spending a couple of months in Asia is that you get much more skilled at their use. I use chopsticks pretty frequently for an American, but they have always taken an act of will to make them do what I want to. Now, I use them automatically and efficiently, and I find for most of the things I eat here, they work better than a knife and fork would. I believe I'll use them more frequently at home after this trip. The most amusing chopstick trick I've picked up is eating peanuts with chopsticks. It's fun and a good test to determine if you're ready for the big time in chopstick use. The other huge advantage of this method for someone like me is that it slows my normal consumption rate from wolf mode down to something a bit more reasonable. While we're on the subject of peanuts, they do grow a lot of them here and the vast majority of the ones I've had have been very good.
The most interesting phenomena I've experienced in Vietnamese dieting is that I've eaten birds in nearly every stage. In Hanoi, I had something I dubbed "chicken guts mix". The main part consisted of round balls that are chicken eggs that are in the process of being formed. The shell hasn't formed yet, and the center doesn't really seem to be separated into yolk and whites. It was pretty good. This is served with whatever else the butcher seemed to find on the way in, including chicken hearts and a couple of other unidentified organs. The chicken hearts were very good, and the others were so-so.
The next obvious stage is eggs, which are very frequently served for breakfast both to locals and tourists. The eggs are generally prepared just like they would be in the west, and are usually served with a French style baguette of bread. The bread is very good, and better on average than the baguettes I got in France. One new thing I picked up here is adding soy sauce to fried eggs. That's pretty good, but dispense with the salt since soy sauce is loaded with salt.
The next stage was eating some sea birds that appear to be about a week or two old (or maybe they were just small birds). The bird is about the size of your palm. Eating style seems to be mostly a matter of preference. Marcel ate the whole thing bones and all, except for the beak and part of the head. Others picked off what meat they could find, which is a lot like eating crabs (a lot of work for not much benefit). In the end, I chose a course somewhere in between.
Several times we had duck prepared one way or another. I've generally disliked duck in the past, because it always tasted greasy. Here though, they seem to have surrounded this problem and I generally liked it a lot. I don't know if the ducks are raised differently than they are in other places, or if it's cooked differently but it's excellent.
There's lots of good produce here in Vietnam. My favorites are mangos and pineapple. I realize these aren't particularly exotic, but you have to learn to deal with disappointment.
Pineapple both here and in Thailand is excellent and fresh. To procure fresh pineapple, simply start down any street at random, going in any direction at random. Before you travel one km, you'll probably see someone selling it from a little traveling cart. You can buy half a pineapple, that's had the shell trimmed off, and the center trimmed for a very reasonable price. If you get a vendor that's in a "gouge the tourist" mode, it costs a whopping 10,000 VND (US$ .66). About half the vendors charge the Vietnamese price of 2,000 VND (US$ .13), so I give them 10,000 anyway for being honest. The price is about the same as in Thailand. Pineapple is frequently served here with a mixture of salt and chili. Now by chili, I mean something that's not the same as chili powder in the U.S., which includes Cumin. Here, it's closer to cayenne pepper than to chili powder, and it has something else in it but I don't know what. I think you can use cayenne to try it at home. It sounds a bit weird, but until you try it I don't want to hear any whining. The funniest part of my addiction to pineapple is that when I got married in 1981, I made my wife make a separate wedding cake just for me because she wanted pineapple in the main cake, and I hated pineapple. I guess I was young and foolish then.
Mangos are very good here, and I think a bit better than the ones we get in California, which I'd guess are usually from Mexico. A large one weighs about 1 kg, and costs 10,000 VND (US$ .66) / kg. One thing that they do here with mangos that I'm not all that wild about is putting green mangos in some kinds of salads. It's not terrible, but not something I'd eat every day.
Another interesting fruit is called Dragon Fruit. It's about the size of a softball, and it's purple on the outside. The inside is all white, with some black specks floating around. The black specs are the seeds, and they're distributed uniformly through the fruit instead of being concentrated in the center as is usual. The specs look about half the size of peppercorns. The fruit is somewhere between tart and sweet and bland. Now if that doesn't sound wishy-washy, I don't know what does but it's the best I can do.
They grow a lot of sugarcane here, and I've had it in a couple of formats that are interesting. For lunch on day we had raw sugarcane with meat wrapped around it. It looked a bit like a corn dog, except the meat was on the outside. You eat the meat off the outside, and then chew on the sugarcane. This was pretty good. You also find little cafe like places along the side of the road that have a little sugarcane press. This is a set of rollers spring loaded together with a handle to turn one of them. The vendor sticks a piece of raw sugarcane in there, and turns the crank to move it through the press. This squeezes the juice out of the cane, which is then placed in a cup of ice and you drink it straight. This is pretty good, but not something I'd want on a regular basis.
In a restaurant in Hanoi, we had the biggest Escargot I've ever seen. The shells are about the size of a golf ball. They apparently scooped the insides out, chopped them up, and added some more stuff, although I have no idea what, and stuffed it back in. They didn't have the usual pile of butter and garlic that you'd find in the French version (Escargot is generally considered a delivery vehicle for butter and garlic). It was pretty good, but tough and chewy.
Asian cooking tends to have a lot more varieties of green vegetables than you find in western cooking. A fairly substantial percentage of the meals included lemon grass, bamboo shoots or various kinds of seaweed like substances. I wasn't really very wild about these at first, but they grow on you as you eat more of it. On the other side of the variety fence, there is an awful lot of rice in the diet in one form or another and one can easily get pretty tired of it over time.
|Travel Tip||Always carry a small bottle of Cayenne Pepper with you. The most consistent thing I've found wrong with meals on my trip is that many are too bland, and a bit of red pepper would fix that right up. Red pepper is also the key ingredient to making bad airline food palatable. Surprisingly though, I've ridden on five different airlines on this trip, and the food has been quite good on all of them.|
Over the next couple of weeks, I wandered all over the town, both on foot and on my bike. The old quarter I described above was fairly typical. Some parts of the city were much less densely populated than others. Some are newer and in better repair, but for the most part the construction was pretty similar. Parts of the downtown area have modern skyscrapers and the like, although most of them are empty since the Asian economic crash of the late 90s. I generally just wandered around at random, looked around, and talked to whoever I ran into that spoke English. Most of the time I ate by stopping by a little restaurant on the sidewalk, or whatever else looked appealing. My funniest meal was when I sat down at a little counter in the middle of the quarter, ordered a meal using the Tourist's Point, and sat down on a little tiny stool to eat. I ended up talking to a young Vietnamese guy beside me. After a while, he asked what I was doing and I told him I was riding a bicycle around Vietnam. He asked "Are you the guy on that orange bicycle?". I also had some people I met that wanted to meet up with me for dinner but couldn't remember my name. They just called the hotel and asked for "the guy with the bike". That got them through immediately.
I refined my Columbus Style Navigation a bit more as well. To see a town now, I pick a compass heading and head off in that direction. When I run into an obstruction, I turn in a random direction and either keep going or try to get my heading back. That is of course unless I see something interesting I want to get a closer look at, in which case all bets are off. I then keep going until I'm tired of it, and then use my GPS to navigate back to the hotel. This is a great way to see a place, and I definitely ended up in some places I wouldn't ordinarily see as a tourist.
Of course, it didn't always work out quite that way. The very first day that I got the bike going, I went out for a "quick spin". Of course, since I was just going to go around the block, I didn't take my map, GPS or the card with the Vietnamese name and address of the hotel. Naturally, I immediately found that the block I was on wasn't square, and I soon became completely lost. I wasn't too worried, so I just kept moving more or less in circles, assuming I'd eventually see something I recognized, or at worst I'd ask a cyclo or taxi driver to show me how to get there. This was fun for about four hours, and then I started thinking I wanted to get back. I did stop and ask a couple of cyclo and taxi drivers, but it turned out they couldn't recognize the English name for the hotel, so after I finally satisfied their curiosity about the bike I moved on. It took another two hours or so to eventually stumble on something I recognized. I wasn't all that worried because I was having fun, but I was getting ready for a shower. Later on, I figured out that I'd been within less than two blocks of the hotel four times in the last couple of hours, thus prompting the travel tips I put in the Bangkok page. In fact, I had been on the other side of a distinctive round building that I could see from the front door of the hotel.
I found a place I dubbed the "Hanoi Mobius Strip". One day, I decided to go East as far as I could, and after navigating the usual hazards I ended up at a cafe where I sat down and had a nice drink with a couple of Aussie guys on holiday. The next day, I went east for a few blocks and tried to go South as far as I could. I ended up at the exact same cafe. A few days later, I went slightly East, and then tried to work my way North, and ended up at the same cafe. By then I knew the way back to the hotel without the GPS or the map.
Hanoi has several parks that are very nice. The nicest one I found was Lenin Park. This is one of the last real monuments to that misguided philosopher that's left in the world. The park was very nice, with a large lake in the middle. Hanoi has several lakes, and most of them have some kind of park around them. This was my favorite, and there are several photos of it in the photo gallery. The most amusing thing about Lenin park is that it charges an entrance fee. Since Lenin was supposed to be the great hero of the proletariat (workers), it just seems funny that they charge an entry fee that a lot of the workers can't afford.
There was another lake named Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword), in the middle of the old quarter. A Vietnamese legend that sounds a bit like Excalibur tells of how King Le Thai To received a magic sword that he used during his ten year resistance against the Chinese Ming court in the 1400s. After liberating the country, the king took a boat to the center of the lake to return the sword given to him by the Divine Tortoise. The tortoise is said to have snatched the sword from his hand and disappeared into the lake. In the middle of the lake is a small 18th century tower named Tortoise Tower. A large tortoise is said to still live there, and sometimes people claim to see it.
The most amusing thing about this lake is that it was about 1 km from my hotel, and looking on a map it jumped at you like you should be able to stumble on it with your eyes closed. Everywhere I wanted to go seemed to involve going to the lake, and then moving on from there. This lake however became my arch nemesis of navigation. The streets leading to it twist and turn a bit, and I ended up setting off to go to the lake either on foot or by bike, and got lost more often than I actually found it. Even when I'd been there a couple dozen times, I still got lost. I was completely pathetic in the navigation department. Maybe I'm taking this whole Columbus thing too seriously.
Ho Chi Minh is widely regarded to be one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century, and he's unquestionably the chief architect of the strategy that ultimately got all foreign powers out of Vietnam. He died in 1969 before the end of the war. He is the most obviously visible symbol of the communist regime, and they make a real effort to revere him. I had a bit of trouble separating out what the average Vietnamese on the street makes of him. If you just look at the visible signs, he's like our Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington all rolled into one. You can find him on the money, and all kinds of monuments, but virtually nothing for general Giap who is the second most prominent leader of the group. The government obviously wants to keep a strong connection to his reputation, but most of the Vietnamese I talked to that had any opinion at all were just tired of hearing about him all the time, or if they don't like the communist government they actively hate him. One Vietnamese woman told me about a survey a Saigon newspaper reporter did that asked people to list the person they admired most. Bill Gates came out number 1, and Ho Chi Minh was down around number 10. Naturally, publishing this got the reporter in a whole raft of trouble with the communist government, and I suspect he's in jail as we speak.
It's a bit tough to really get a grasp on HCM's history. There have been lots of things written about him, but most of the history I've seen about his early life are pretty suspect. A large percentage of the works trace back directly or indirectly to a book claiming to be an interview with him, but it turns out the interviewer was Ho himself. So that means most scholarship on the subject consists of Ho asking himself questions, and then answering them. We know for certain that HCM had no philosiphical problem with fabricating things, and it's fairly certain a lot of the earlier things are fabrications, but I don't know enough to say which things are and which aren't. One thing is certain. Somewhere along the line he became a master politician, negotiator and influential leader. Like all communist leaders, he was absolutely ruthless in eliminating rivals or anyone in the organization that didn't follow the path he wanted to go. He was masterful at playing the Soviet communists off against the Chinese communists, and using their mutual antagonism to get aid from both.
The HCM Museum is a bizarre and weird place. I think the architects were trying their best to make a museum that wasn't terminally dull. I have to admit that this is an admirable objective, considering how boring most museums are, and the bizarre displays at least keep you awake and guessing.
They have the normal war memorabilia and such, as well as some very well designed sets showing the transition from the old to the new. These are mixed in with pages from his early notebooks, and the usual other kinds of trivia you would expect. Most of it is quite well done as far as museums go, and as usual most of it makes frightfully dull photographs so you won't see a lot of them in the photo gallery.
So, you'll be cruising through the museum seeing the kind of things you expect, and something will pop up completely out of left field that doesn't seem to make sense at all. For example, one display is supposed to show his thought process. It's a big sculpture that's a cross between a cave he lived in for a while and apparently gained some kind of enlightenment, and what they thought of as a human brain. It came out pretty muddled to me.
Another was a large white plastic table, with some giant plastic fruit on it. There's no sign explaining what it's supposed to be, and it's so baffling every guidebook feels compelled to mention it (including me, apparently).
The building is also kind of weird shaped with walls that appear out of nowhere, and big empty spaces that you can't get to. All in all, it was an interesting visit just because of the weirdness of it, and I did actually learn a bit about HCM there, so all in all I'd say that the designers must have achieved their objective.
This is a frighteningly weird display. You go into this building, and there's Uncle Ho himself laid out for display. His body is reputedly treated using the Soviet technology that's used to keep Lenin so peppy looking. No cameras are allowed, and they check you pretty thoroughly on the way in.
All in all, I found the experience a bit creepy. It's not because I'm bothered by dead people, but because I found the spectacle of it to be strange. HCM himself said he did not want this. Just to be sure, he said explicitly in writing that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread over Vietnam. Naturally, the communist leaders didn't pay any attention to the personal wishes of the leader of the revolution, and did what he said he didn't want. As usual, they justify the actions they took for their own political and power-grabbing moves by saying "the people" needed the symbol. Of course, since they were building a huge mausoleum for Ho while people in the provinces were starving to death, I'm a bit mystified about which particular people they were talking about.
Vietnam has had a lot of influence from several religions along the way, and as usual a lot of the tourist attractions no matter where you go end up being religious in nature. There have been several major influences, both on the northern Vietnamese people, and on the Southern people. For much of the history these were different kingdoms with different religious institutions, different leaderships and different cultures. The North always seems to swallow up the South sooner or later though, or at least that's the way it's been for the last few thousand years.
All over Vietnam you can see the effects of this. Keep in mind that in earlier history, religious institutions typically had much more influence on politics and policies than they do now. For example, the Pope used to have his own army, which was used to actively wage war on behalf of the church. In very early societies like the Egyptians, the religion and power structure were one and the same, and in fact that's still somewhat true in Egypt and various countries, particularly in the Middle East.
Over the years, Vietnamese culture has been influenced directly or indirectly by many religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Catholicism and a host of others. The North tended to be influenced more by China and the South more by India. As you travel around, you will see what's left of these influences. Some of these groups left more for future generations than others. For example, the ones that built temples out of wood in a tropical climate didn't leave much of a mark for the 20th century.
The two tourist sites that really typify the two most influential religions in Hanoi are:
These two sects have had the most influence on Vietnamese history and culture. Catholicism had a significant impact in the 19th and 20th centuries as well, and in fact the Catholic church was engaged up to it's eyeballs with the French invasion and takeover of Vietnam, as well as the Diem puppet regime installed by the U.S. after the French were kicked out.
Water puppets are mechanically activated puppets that perform a play complete with music in a small pool of water. The cool thing about them is that they are activated by bamboo poles from underwater, so you never see the puppeteers or any of the mechanisms. It's an ancient art form that has changed little in the last thousand years. They typically perform a play that consists of 12 acts generated from Vietnamese mythology accompanied by music. The puppeteers have to be a bit tough, because some of the puppets weigh as much as 45 pounds (20 kg). It's an entertaining and uniquely Vietnamese art form that you shouldn't miss.
I took a two day trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, which is absolutely fabulous. As is to be expected, my poorly organized and muddled brain forgot that there was a Ha Long Bay trip as part of my tour with Marcel's group, so I went on my own. It worked out just as well anyway, because the trip was very inexpensive (25 USD for a ride out there, a night in a hotel and the ride back including meals), and I met some really nice people along the way.
Ha Long Bay is a United Nations World Heritage listed site, and one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. The bay consists of thousands of rocky islands popping up out of the bay. Many of the islands have very large limestone caverns, and we toured a couple of them. The caverns look a lot like the caverns I've been to in California, but they're generally a bit bigger inside. On the two days I was there the weather wasn't quite as cooperative as one would hope, but it was still a great trip.
The bay is hauntingly beautiful, and has it's share of colorful stories and myths associated with it. Ha Long means "Dragon Descending", and there are a couple of variations on the legend about the creation of the bay. The most common is that a celestial dragon and her offspring were ordered by the Jade Emperor to halt an invasion from the sea. She spewed out bits of jade that turned into wondrous island and karst formations, thereby scuppering the enemy ships. Other variations have the islands as pearls, and the dragon creating the bay by swishing her tail, thus tearing up parts of the mainland that were filled by the sea. In either case, the dragon is said to have liked the creation so much that she settled among them and lives there to this day.
The bay has been the site of several historical sea battles. It is said the caves here was used to store a bunch of bamboo spears that General Tran Hung Dao planted in Song Bach Dang to stop Kubalai Kahn's invasion after Mongolia swallowed up the rest of China.
On the trip out to the bay, I met a couple of people that I really liked. That's the best part about going on organized tours. Sure, you're being a tourist but you get to meet some great people that way.
Mindy and Emily are a couple of young women that are teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City for a year between high school and university. I think this was an excellent idea. I used to think it was best for a high school student to just get on with it and go to university, because I staunchly believe a university education is the best thing that they can do for themselves. Skipping a year tends to lead to entanglements such as cars, jobs, loans, relationships and a whole host of other things that can disrupt the educational process. After meeting Mindy and Emily plus a few others like them along the way, I've decided that it's an even better idea get out and see how the rest of the world lives and thinks, and to expand your horizons before going off to school. In a lot of places, you can get by for very little money by teaching English or doing other odd jobs. Both of these young women managed to see a lot of Vietnam without spending very much at all. Later in Saigon I also met several young people that are on a "Semester At Sea" program. In this case, they took one semester during their third or fourth year of university to sail around the world on a cruise ship, and spend a bit of time in each of a dozen or so countries. This also seems like a good but different experience.
Walter & Anne are a couple from Norway that took six months off to travel together. Their children are all grown, and they both have careers going full bore but decided to do this together. It took a while to get it all worked out, but in the end they're doing the same thing I'm doing, but doing it together. The Ozzies would have to say "Good on ya, Mate". I spent lots of time talking to them, and they pointed out the best places to visit in New Zealand.
Yukari is a Japanese woman that got "downsized" as they say. The Japanese economy has been in a slump for some time, and that seems to be a fairly common occurrence. She naturally did the right thing by burning through her unemployment while going off to travel for a few months in Vietnam and New Zealand. I've met a surprising number of people along the way just like that. Most people panic when they lose a job and go on the hunt for a new one as soon as they can. Other's just chill out and enjoy life with the assumption that a job will be available when they need it. The latter approach makes a lot more sense to me.
I met and talked to a few more people on the trip, and all in all it was a very pleasant trip with nice people and great scenery. I'd place Ha Long Bay on the must see list if you go to Vietnam at all.
Next - Vietnam's History, It's Dark Side, and a Few Book Reviews