Friday, January 6, 2012


November 30th-After three rickshaw rides, two taxis, a fifteen-hour train ride, and two flights over the course of two long exhausting days, we finally arrived in Vietnam. Many people have asked us why we don't wait until retirement to go on our around the world adventure. We know now that we made the right choice by not waiting. I can't imagine being able to sleep in airports or on trains or traveling two days with no sleep or food at all when I'm twice the age I am now. By the time we got to Vietnam, we were dirty and feeling the type of exhausted where you could start crying for no apparent reason. Everything seemed to be spinning. As tired as we were, we also felt excited to be there. It was all so different and fascinating.

We stayed in Hanoi first. It's a charming little city with obvious French influence. I call it the Asian Paris. Its filled with high-end stores like Cartier and Louis Vuitton by the Opera House as well as art galleries, little markets, fancy restaurants and also little sidewalk restaurants where the locals sit on these tiny child-sized stools and eat bowls of noodles. The people here are so welcoming and friendly and also very thin and petit. I feel like a 5'2" giant among the Vietnamese. I haven't felt this tall since my 5th-grade growth spurt. Darren and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out their secret for staying so slim. The Vietnamese take pride in their ability to eat anything and everything that moves and most Vietnamese dishes consist of fried and salty foods. Our first night in Hanoi we went out for a traditional Vietnamese dinner. Darren and I shared a plate of noodles while the two girls next to us had ten plates and six beers between the two of them. Both girls were built like toothpicks. It's just one of the many fascinating things about Vietnam.

Everyone in Vietnam is also very young. It's like we landed in Never Never Land where no one grows old and no one gains weight. Perhaps it's all the MSG they consume that keeps them so well preserved, we ponder. Our hotel seems to be run by a gang of twelve-year-olds. They're all so cute. They giggle and run everywhere they go like they're really excited to get somewhere. Then we discover the reason why there seem to be no adults in Vietnam. Three million people were killed in the Vietnam war and so two-thirds of the population was born after 1975.

We saw so many great things while in Vietnam so I will try to give a brief description of the highlights. It was raining really heavily on our first day there so it was a perfect opportunity to visit the History Museum. They were currently showing an exhibit of exquisite jade artifacts. The permanent exhibits were Vietnamese artifacts spanning from prehistoric times to the end of World War II and consisted mainly of intricate wood and stone carvings. The detailed carvings were incredible and are still present in much of Vietnamese architecture, particularly the temples.

The weather was perfect the next day so we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake. There is a footbridge that takes you to Ngoc Son temple which sits in the middle of the lake and is surrounded by ancient trees with roots that look like vines coming up out of the ground. The temple was really pretty and had such a great location in the middle of the lake. There were views of the lake and city in all directions.

We got a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but he dropped us off at the Temple of Literature instead. Um Ok. We wanted to go there eventually anyway so we checked it out. The Temple of Literature was Vietnam's first university. The temple was first constructed in 1070 under King Lý Nhân Tông and is dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars. It consists of a series of large courtyards with beautiful gardens, ponds, temples, and statues. We also saw a wonderful performance of live Vietnamese music and a photography exhibition, as well as a graduation ceremony so for once we were happy our taxi dropped us in the wrong spot. We walked to the mausoleum but only got to see the outside because it's closed on Fridays as is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. We were alright with missing out on this though. You have to pay to get in and what you are paying to get inside and see is the well-preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself. I personally feel that paying to see someone's corpse is a little macabre and creepy but the Vietnamese think of Ho as a god and like to come to pay their respects. Outside there are guards in white uniforms that stand stock still much like the guards at Buckingham Palace.

Close by the mausoleum, is the One Pillar Pagoda. Its description is self-explanatory. There are tons of pagodas all around Vietnam but this is the only one standing on one pillar like a flamingo in the middle of a little pond so it's a big attraction.

Then we hopped in a taxi to the Hai Lo Prison, also known as the "Hanoi Hilton." I noticed the meter seemed to be going up quite rapidly. We pointed this out to the driver who proceeded to have a fit because we busted him for trying to cheat us. Who did this guy think he was fooling? We had just been to India and we were like seasoned veterans of taxi scams at this point. He yelled some things at us in Vietnamese which we didn't understand but in conjunction with his hand gestures we were able to interpret as, "get the hell out of my taxi." We spent a couple of hours at Hai Lo prison which has now been turned into a museum. The first wing has been kept pretty much the same as it was when it was a French prison except there were life-size figures in the shackles where the real Vietnamese prisoners used to be. I think it was smart that they decided to do this. It shows just how cramped and horrible the conditions were. If the room were empty, it wouldn't tell the story at all and the story was not a good one. Some of the exhibit was very graphic. In one room they had the actual guillotine that the French used to cut off prisoners heads. There were even photographs on the wall taken during executions. But to leave out these details would be erasing some of the history of what happened in that horrible place. It did end on a more positive note though. Another wing of the prison focused on when it was used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war (or the American War as they call it here) to hold American soldiers prisoner. They made a point to show how well they treated the American soldiers. There were many pictures of American soldiers looking happy and healthy and enjoying themselves at the "Hanoi Hilton". If you can get past the obviously posed photographs and forced smiles and their message that Hai Lo was some kind of fun boys camp, it's a pretty interesting exhibit. In fact, it had pictures of John McCain being pulled out of the water when his plane was shot down. It also had his flight uniform on display.

That night we saw a water puppet show. This is a real Vietnamese cultural experience and a must-see if you're in Vietnam. Even though all of the story was sung in Vietnamese, the music, the orchestra, and puppets were mesmerizing.

The next day we went on an overnight boat cruise to Halong Bay. The whole experience was amazing. We drove three hours through the rice paddy fields. The houses are mostly pagoda style and are really tall and narrow. This is because people are taxed on the width of their street frontage. No one is allowed to own the land their houses are on so if the government decides they want to put a road where your house is standing then you're out of luck.

Halong Bay was magical. Kayaking through the caves was unbelievable as was the walking tour inside the limestone caves. I would recommend anyone who visits Hanoi to go on at least an overnight trip to Halong Bay. We enjoyed it so much, we were sorry we didn't go on the two-day cruise.

The day after we got back from Halong bay we flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. When we got there we regretted not staying in Hanoi. It was so much more crowded and hectic than Hanoi and lacked all of it's small city charm. The population of Ho Chi Minh is 10 million people and there are 6 million motorbikes. Helmets have recently become compulsory and they are the most popular fashion accessory in Vietnam. They have entire stores devoted to selling helmets in every color and style. Just like India, there are no traffic lights and no stop signs. Except in Vietnam, there are no cows in the street. I didn't think traffic could get any crazier than India but Vietnam is definitely the craziest. The only way to get across the street is to just walk out into the middle of traffic. You can't stop. You have to keep walking at a slow and steady pace while cars and motorbikes swerve around you. I felt like the little frog in the old Atari game "Frogger" trying to get across several lanes of traffic without getting squashed. Darren and I practiced by using some of the locals as human shields before we tried it all by ourselves. Eventually, we got the hang of it but walking anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City can be very stressful although it may bring back many fond memories as your life flashes before your eyes.

The locals like to go to the park to do their exercises, practice Tai Chi or ballroom dancing. They also play a game using a badminton shuttlecock but instead of volleying it with rackets they use their feet. Going to the park was a great source of entertainment.

The next day we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Vietnam/American war, the Vietcong built an underground tunnel system that spanned over 200 km to hide from American troops. The tunnels were like an underground city and were even equipped with kitchens and hospitals.

The tour started with a viewing of a documentary created by the Vietnamese in 1965. It praised the local peasants who turned into guerrilla soldiers to fight against the Americans. The video featured one little gentle peasant girl for having the record for killing the most Americans and called her an "American killer hero."

Then we got to see the actual tunnels. They've since been widened to fit westerners but even with the extra room, I still had to crouch down and crawl to get through. The Vietcong would crawl through the tunnels and American soldiers would run in after them and get stuck. There was no room to turn around so if they went into the tunnel there would be no getting out alive. Then our guide took us to an American tank that had been destroyed. They had it on display like a trophy and kids were climbing on it. People were posing in front of it to have their picture taken and I was thinking, "People died here". When approximately 59,000 Americans died and 3 million Vietnamese died, did anyone really win? It seems to me like everyone lost. Our guide told us that his mother was killed during the war while trying to protect him from a napalm bomb when he was just a baby. He was burnt on half of his body. I could see the rubbery spiderweb of scars peeking out from his shirt sleeve. An Australian tourist asked him how he felt about American tourists visiting Vietnam. The guide took him aside to speak with him privately. I suddenly wanted to crawl back into the tunnel and hide. I had nothing to do with the war and many Americans wanted nothing to do with the war. Australia also fought against the Vietnamese as well but the whole focus of the tour was about how they fought and killed Americans. I wasn't even born until after the war was over but I was feeling very uncomfortable in my American skin.

The next part of the tour was to show us all of the traps they built for killing and torturing American soldiers. We found this to be pretty sick and in very poor taste. Our guide cracked jokes while he showed us trap doors in the grass where they dug a hole underneath and planted four-foot-long spikes. There were many other variations on this type of trap that he showed us. It was pretty sickening and disturbing. All the while we could hear the sound of gunfire. It wasn't a soundtrack either. It was actual gunfire. They had a shooting range where visitors could pay to fire American rifles and machine guns.

Our tour bus dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum but after our experience at the Cu Chi Tunnels, we decided we'd had enough. We could see all of the American tanks and planes on display like trophies outside the museum and it just didn't seem right so we skipped it. The next day we met an Australian couple who went to the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum and they said they had the same feelings about it as us. They said they wished they hadn't visited the War Remnants Museum either as they felt it was morbid and in poor taste so we were glad we chose not to go in.

The next day we took a tour of the Mekong Delta. The reason we chose to go on packaged tours while in Vietnam was because they were actually much less expensive than taking taxis everywhere and we also had the bonus of English speaking guides. We took a motorboat out to some different islands to taste the homemade honey tea that they make there and some native fruits. They took us to the coconut candy factory and showed us how they make the candy. We got to try some samples too. We took a rowboat ride down the Mekong Delta and we rode bikes around one of the islands. The tour was interesting but we both felt like we were in a tourist mill. There were tons of tourists that they were trying to rush in and out as quickly as possible and they were constantly trying to get you to buy things which was annoying. There were parts that were enjoyable but overall we felt it was not worth the time and money.

Vietnam was an incredible trip. Our only regret is that we didn't stay for longer and it's one of the few places I can say that I'd like to go back to someday. We both preferred the north to the south. The north seems to be focused on the future while the south is stuck in the past and uses the war as a money-making industry. We had met a young woman on our Halong Bay boat cruise who was from North Vietnam. She was orphaned at a young age and eventually adopted by an American couple when she was ten years old. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone who was both Vietnamese and also American. She said that she had never even heard of the Vietnam war until she learned about it in school when she moved to America. She said they don't like to focus on the past in the north. They only want to talk about the future and their young people love American culture and all things American.

One of my tips for traveling to Vietnam would be to bring an empty suitcase because you're going to want to do a lot of shopping as everything is so incredibly inexpensive. You can get a custom-tailored suit for only $60. We purchased two silk sleeping bag liners for only $4 each in Hanoi. In the U.S. they cost $60 each. We also found it very unusual that they accept US dollars everywhere. In fact, they prefer to be paid in US dollars rather than Vietnamese Dong and they can all calculate the currency conversions in their heads. However, their currency can be very confusing. One US dollar is worth approximately 21,000 Vietnamese Dong so it feels like you're spending an enormous amount of money even though you're not.

Breakfast can be tricky as well. A typical Vietnamese breakfast is a bowl of noodle soup with chicken or pork and Vietnamese coffee is the worst I've ever tasted. There seems to be a scarcity of fresh milk in all of Vietnam so Vietnamese coffee consists of instant coffee mixed with hot water and condensed milk. As hard as we tried, we just couldn't get used to it. If you ask for fresh milk in a cafe and they do actually have some (most Vietnamese seem to not even know what fresh milk is) you will be charged extra for it.

Vietnam is also the least English speaking country we've visited so far but you can get by with sign language. Darren and I needed toothpaste and had a fun time miming to a shop keeper. First, we pretended to brush our teeth so she brought us a toothbrush. Wrong. Then we acted out applying the toothpaste onto the imaginary toothbrush and then she got it right. We all had a good laugh. We also downloaded a very useful iPod app that translates, "I can't eat garlic" in every language. This was a literal lifesaver for me. We were trying to explain my garlic allergy to a waitress but she wasn't able to understand. We showed her Darren's iPod and then she said, "Aha!" and began clapping. She thought it was great and I did too because I knew it was safe for me to eat my food. If you get sick in Vietnam and need to go to the hospital you might come out sicker than when you went in. We met a volunteer nurse from Australia who told us the hospitals are so overcrowded that they put two or three patients in every bed! Good thing the Vietnamese are so tiny.

On the rare occasion that you do spot an elderly person, they are so tiny and adorable that you will need to restrain yourself from trying to put them in your pocket and take them home with you. One cute little old lady came up to me and put her hand on my arm. Some people, particularly little children, are not used to seeing westerners and they will stare and want to touch you. They don't mean any harm but I was getting a lot of stares and people were following me and wanting to touch me and I couldn't figure out why. Then Darren gently pointed out to me, "you've got curly hair and freckles for god's sake!." Curly hair is not something they see every day in Asia and freckles are considered unsightly. Asian women spend billions on skin bleaching creams and skin lightening procedures so it's very rare to see a person with freckles as well.

One of the many things I loved about Vietnam was that it's completely socially acceptable to bring your camera everywhere. Even locals carry cameras with them at all times. They love to take pictures of themselves striking ridiculous poses and for some reason, they bring their cameras to dinner and take pictures of their meals.

I'd recommend Vietnam to anyone. It's people, culture and history are fascinating. It is a beautiful country and extremely affordable and easy to travel around. We had a truly wonderful and memorable experience and hope to go back someday.