02.11.2010 - 08.11.2010 24 °C
Vietnam - it's different…
Arriving in Vietnam, I noticed pretty much immediately, that it was different from Thailand. Economically, they seem quite a bit poorer and certainly less tourism oriented. There is also a lot of green - ie agriculture land right next to Hanoi.
The other thing I noticed in Vietnam is the traffic. It is not that the roads are so heavily laden with vehicles, it is that so many of those vehicles are motorbikes or scooters. Proportionally, I assume that there are about 10-20 motorbikes for each car. The other difference is that they don't have all that much for traffic regulations at intersections or roundabouts. People just try to go through without hitting anything.
As taxis are so corrupt in Vietnam, it is very highly recommended to organize transportation to your accommodations with the accommodations which is what I did. The airport is fairly far, being about 1.5 hours from downtown Hanoi.
After checking in to my hostel close to the Old Quarters of Hanoi, I decided to go to the Gecko Café in Hanoi to sample their food and hoping that I will be able to take cooking classes there if the food is good. So I walked at night, following a map through the relatively dark streets of Hanoi at night, getting the impression on occasion, due to the trees in the alleyways and some of the architecture, that I was in France.
Anyhow, I find the street that the restaurant is supposed to be on, and find a small sign for it that points to a dark entryway. I go into the entry way, climb two flights of ordinary steps and then two floors of a small circular staircase made of wood that is shaking under my weight. I didn't see anything that looked particularly convincing and suddenly see the most beautiful café. I sit down, order a mango-coconut milk, an order of spring rolls, and the local dish of fried trout, onions, chilies and dill that you roll into rolls of rice paper (like making fajitas) with sliced cucumbers, carrots, noodles. Absolutely delicious! It was the first time in memory that I'd tasted cooked dill. For desert, I noticed, of all things… Hokey Pokey ice-cream imported from New Zealand. I normally try to eat local, but if you've ever tasted Hokey Pokey ice-cream, you'd understand… So I order it, but unfortunately, they are out of that one flavour… I'll just have to go to New Zealand to get some on my next trip!
The next morning, I left for a 3 day trip of Halong Bay. Pictures of Halong Bay were my main inspiration to come to Vietnam. It was what I most wanted to see. A three day tour, all included except drinks and tips was 88$.
We got piled into a bus and took the three hour ride through the countryside to Halong City. On the way, we stopped at the Ruby Emperor, a stop for tourists where the prices are high and lots of local stuff is sold. The architecture is interesting in the country side. Ornate three story houses that are high but very thin. Sort of like in Holland, oddly enough.
We made it to Halong Bay. The bay is magnificent! Unfortunately, there was a permanent and rather thick haze which has made the pictures not turn out too well. Once there, and after a copious meal of dragon, snake and tiger (our hosts had quite the sense of humour when describing the dishes…), we got to visit "surprise cave" which, though sizeable, didn't really surprise me all that much. This was followed by 30 minutes if kayaking that I skipped deciding that I'd prefer to sit on the deck and enjoy the view followed by a choice of swimming or climbing to the top of a lookout with a wonderful view. I originally decided to take the swim, so I didn't take my camera, but ultimately, went for the climb which was worth it; it was a wonderful view of Halong Bay. The only down side to the cruise was that we were carted from place to place on a tight schedule and didn't really have the time to stop and chill in a place.
After supper, the crew started a karaoke session. I went up to the top deck to enjoy some (relative) peace and it was interesting to see the bay, full of several dozen junks and hearing karaoke coming from all of those boats around ours…
Next morning, the boat left for Cat Ba island, which is a little island to the south. To be honest, I didn't really see the point of visiting Cat Ba island as there really isn't anything to see there. In the morning, we climbed a nice hill (about 500m up) in a national park to get a good view of the surrounding hills and land. During the day, we went for a quick visit of Monkey Island which had a small but nice beach that monkeys visit at the end of the day. One of the tourists got bit (they can be unpredictable). I hope the monkey didn't have rabies!! My evening was spent with a foot massage and as I was waiting for a fellow travel mate who was getting a body massage, I got my first ever pedicure (my toe nails were rather long and the clippers were in Hanoi…). It went well till the woman cut my toe off (slight exaggeration) but I wasn't thrilled to have a cut toe…
I saw this monkey steal a beach towel... He seems to enjoy the soft downy feel...
The next day was the return to Hanoi. As a whole, the trip was nice, the food was good, the accommodations were ok, but I felt that we were rushed from place to place which was a bit unfortunate. Apparently they have about 500 junks (boats) in Halong Bay, so that gives you an idea of the industry...
Next morning, I visited Hanoi. There is a lake to the south of the Old Quarters that I visited. It was nice. On one side, about a half dozen couples were getting their marriage pictures taken which was interesting.
I then visited a house in the traditional style (it survived the bombings of the Vietnam war) which was very interesting. Originally it had one family, but several years later, they fit 5 families in there. Not sure how they managed!
Lunch consisted of taste-testing 4 kinds of spring rolls.
I then got a Vietnamese massage (not the same as the Thai massage, with lots of emphasize put on massaging the back of the neck). It was good, but I prefer the Thai variety. I then headed off to visit the Hanoi Hilton. This was the old "Maison Centrale" that the French had built when they had colonized Indochina. When visiting it, you get to see the atrocities the French committed to the Vietnamese and the wonderful treatment the Vietnamese gave to the American POW pilots shot down over Hanoi. Who said history is written by the victors?
I decided to leave Vietnam, not because I wasn't having a good time, but rather because the weather is really bad down the coast at this point and though I would like to visit the rural areas, it would be better to visit them with the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine that I didn't get unfortunately. But on the bright side, it will give me more to see should I return some day to Vietnam.
The following day, I got to visit the Ethnographic Museum which had lots of interesting details about the different ethnicities in Vietnam. It was very detailed, almost too detailed, unless you are doing a research project on these ethnicities. But at least I can say they were thorough. The part I enjoyed the most was visiting the area behind the museum where they had recreated several houses from the different ethnicities that you could visit. They were invariably fascinating! I loved the tall house on stilts…
This was followed by having a sandwich on the street with some of the best bread I've had since the nan bread in India and then a quick visit of the Ho Chi Minh museum. It was rather interesting with a temporary exhibit on education in Vietnam and Asia as a whole (over a period of 15 years, for example, the number of university students has increased by a factor of 10!), and then a large section mostly presenting the correspondence that Ho Chi Minh had had during his struggle for Vietnam. Fascinating, but after visiting Hanoi Hilton, I quickly reached a level of saturation in regards to pro-communism philosophy which was also painfully detailed where the heart of the display was the correspondence.
Tomorrow morning, the plan is to take a cooking course to learn the traditional Pho soup and also the local Ca Cha fish dish mentioned earlier in this entry.
Vietnam is an inexpensive place to visit. I'm currently staying in a hostel for 6.5$ a night and the meals vary from 75cents to 10$ if you really splurge. As an average, a good meal can be had for about 3$.