“Good Morning Vietnam”- the Preamble
Hey friends. We have flown out of the Warsaw Airport to our destination of Vietnam. Many of our friends have been to Europe; but going to Asia brings a renewed tingle of excitement.
For several days beforehand and even now I’ve had weird, mixed feelings on several levels. First, we are flying Aeroflot, the Russian Airlines, to mother Russia. We landed in Moscow. Our tickets got stamped at passport control. So we have official proof that we have been on Russian soil even if Trump and Putin argue. The fact that the “Ruskies” did not let us leave the airport without a visa is besides the point; isn't it?
Second, we then transfer from Moscow to Hanoi, Vietnam, the northern part of that country. This is a 9 hour trek. The weirdness arises from when I was a teen. I did not want to go to war in Vietnam. My Selective Service LOTTERY number came up #79 out of 365 birthdates, My college roommate at the time had #80. I prayed Uncle Sam would not revoke the 2-S Draft Deferment we enjoyed as MSU sophomores. If your number was under 100, you were going to be drafted into the US Army for deployment. We were not drafted, but since we participated in protests and since I had many future classmates who deployed and survived, I am certainly interested in seeing the aftermath in person 40 years later.
Hanoi- the Capital
We landed in Hanoi. Our boutique hotel, La Storia, located in the Old Quarter arranged for transit. No trying to figure out the buses on such a long haul this time. When we arrived the staff put us immediately at ease; many warm welcomes, fruit drink, cold towel. We arrived before check-in so we sat in the lounge where the manager joined us and helped us plan out some excursions, got us plane tickets and transports. She spoke marvelous english and was kind and professional. Thanks Amber. We were escorted to our room which was modern, had flower petals on the bed, and was nicely appointed. The window over looked the Main Street. We felt comfortable. After freshening up we decided to explore the neighborhood. It is very, very warm and humid. See the photos below, this is what $30 per night gets including flip flops, bathrobes and fruit.
Old Quarter Hanoi is kinetic; a flurry of activity, sounds, businesses, and people. The sidewalks in front of the shops act as parking spaces for zillions of scooters and motor cycles. Pedestrians need to walk on the street curb. Crossing the narrow streets is a crazy experience; There are not that many cars so you can see those coming, but the zillion scooters drive on both sides of the street and run through intersections with continuous honking. “HONKING” is the sole safety practice. We looked for openings and then hopped, skipped, and sprinted across. We actually saw an auto collide into the back of a scooter with Mom and kid. A crowd gathered for a moment, but the Mom got her bike up, restarted, and took off kid in tow. The lady driver in the expensive “Mercedes” would have to explain the crumpled front end bumper. Janet wishes we were immediately outside the Quarter; Frank digs the action.
Most buildings and residences in the Old Quarter are narrow. Typically, each business is in a single narrow opening. Some have glass, most are opened air and display hanging or stacked merchandise. The streets are named for the goods usually found there, but they all appear about the same to us. There is a street named for clothing, for hardware, for medicine, for suitcases, and for sheet metal. The metal workers braze and sodder the goods right on the side walk. Interspersed between the shops are restaurants, small hotels, trinket shops, and travel agents. The most well known shopping streets have repetitive art neon signage for place making. Our impression is that everyone is working hard to make a buck. At night, the street market is also set up with tent after tent of merchandise for blocks and blocks. Socialist country, but it looks like pure Capitalism!
The currency exchange is just crazy: $1 US buck is equal to d_22,760.00 Vietnam Dong. We are carrying around so many d_500,000 bills, its unreal.
Our first meal was at “Highway 4” near the hotel. Pure Vietnamese food. We ordered the favorites; non-fried Spring Rolls made of finely sliced veggies and rolled in paper thin rice paper, green beans with chili's and soup with grilled pork balls, veggies, and noodles, and cold “Saigon” beer. We used chop sticks pretty well. This was an expensive restaurant, it cost us d_341,404.00, or $15 bucks.
Oh yeah, Frank got a haircut in Hanoi; d_150,000, no more lion’s mane; too hot.
Other interesting costs: hemming 2 pair of pants $7 one bottle of large water $1.
On the second day, our manager scheduled a “free” walking tour with 2 graduated college students who were studying tourism, wanted english language practice, but also had formal jobs in “pharmaceutical HERBS and banking. These two young ladies were just sweethearts. They were so anxious to please and had a nice, thorough itinerary.
The most impressive site was the Hoa Lo Prison aka “Hanoi Hilton”. It is now a museum and has been reduced to about 10% of its original size built by the French Colonialists. Most of the displays and derisions are about the cruelty of the French government verses the bravery of the political prisoners who survived torture and those that escaped to become freedom fighters and leaders. It was the hatred of the Colonial French that created the backlash for freedom against the so called “imperial” influences and what the museum calls the “War of Unification”. Of course, this is where the USA stepped in. Surprisingly, the museum presentation was very respectful to the Americans. Most references were to the “good care” the captured pilots received, showing photos of sporting contests. There was a section dealing with Senator McCain’s rescue by the VC; not the other treatment we know he suffered. They asked visitors to fill out surveys. We thought the museum was respectful, even if not 100% accurate. Wehave heard that the southern Ho Chi Mingh City (Saigon) museums are far more critical of the USA. We’ll have to see.
Our 2 guides marched us all around the Quarter, teaching us how to cross the streets amid waves of motor bikes. We bought lunch while visiting these sites:
Our visit to Thang Tien Plaza with all the designer stores; Gucci, D&G, Rolex, Ray Ban, etc., was fancy and western, but in error as we were searching for a local optometrist for Janet’s new glasses on a quick turnabout. Surprise, the optometrist was right across the street and the girls helped Janet negotiate low prices in “Vietnamese”. Then we were treated to ice cream by girls. A walking tour that was to run 3 hours turned into a full day junket. We said good bye to our new friends at 5:00 PM.
Later, we walked all over the Hanoi Old Quarter our last night. The circle boulevard around the Holy Lake was closed to traffic for the celebration of May Day, with music stages, ( Mr. Slim is popular), games for kids, food stands, and also seller's street market under tents. We finished our Hanoi city adventure at Thang Long Water Puppets Theatre. Here the puppeteers have control from below and under water; no strings. The classical Vietnamese orchestration and music is the most interesting. The 10 or so puppet skits are cute and colorful most enjoyed by kids at heart; an inexpensive diversion. Let us now tell you about Halong Bay.
We took a 2 day 1 night cruise in the Halong Bay, one of the most popular tourist destinations. This place is gorgeous with natural beauty. The van ride with our guide Brian and our fellow cruisers takes about 4 hours. Brian warns that his Vietnamese name can be perceived as an insult by using the wrong “tone”. We have found out that the same word can have different meaning if the accent is wrong. In writing, the placement of the apostrophe (‘) changes the meaning of the same combination of letters.
Upon arrival at the docks you observe scores of anchored River Ships, some very large and others smaller. We dingy out to our double decker wood ship with classic oriental top sails; not the biggest boat but we all agree the “ Carina”was the most handsome. The ship was not sold out. Our shipmates occupied 6 of 9 cabins, which made ship board life very comfortable in the dining room and top deck. Once luggage was stored we ate together and then enjoyed the great views of the course taken between the towering rock formations bursting from the sea. The top deck was the length of the ship with sitting areas and bar, the space limited only by the collapsed sailing masts and the 2 little kids under 5 years that ran around the deck with playful exuberance. It was cute; a little Chinese boy running after a little blond haired Czech girl and visa-versa. They played together most of the trip.
We enjoyed the company of a couple from the UK, Birmingham not London, who had caught up with their world traveling daughter Sam; another couple was from California, and of course they were Information Tech professionals, maybe on the way to Millions of bucks. Excursions and dinners were really fun with this group. The Chinese and Czech couples were also pleasant. See some photos.
We reached our destination and anchored. The dingy took us to on-shore docking where we exited and trekked through these enormous natural caves formed by the action of long gone water erosion.
We then took the dingy to an off shore docking system where we were outfitted into Kayaks and sent on a water course through another cave which opened into an isolated lagoon surrounded by high cliffs with small caves. The waters were calm and quickly we took off following the perimeter. Then the most amazing thing happened. The cliffs bearing long tentacles of vines and plants came alive with jumping, hanging , and swinging monkeys that looked almost out of control with their daring acrobatics. Some monkeys came all the way down to the waters edge by grasping onto rock and standing almost perpendicular. We watched the show for a long while also enjoying the reactions of our shipmates once they caught up to us watching the circus.
We returned to the ship for happy hour and to watch the sunset. Nice wine, and more wine, and fun conversation to get to know each other. Some people think American football is rubbish, but I think the sport is like our country: “youthful, scrappy, energetic, with controlled violence”.
We awoke before 6:30 AM to stretch out with “Tai Chi” on the top deck and enjoy the sunrise. Our instructor was also an officer on the boat. For this exercise he dressed in special loose fitted clothing that allowed him to stretch and bend into elegant poses. We thought those of the group who made it up at 6:30 did a pretty good job with this new craft. It was refreshing.
After breakfast we took the dingy to a “special” island mountain with a sandy beach and that was topped by a Pagoda. There were many dingy docked. The steps cutting through the rocks of the mountain trail to the Pagoda where rather busy. We, of course, trekked and sweated to the top. The views up high were really enjoyable as you could see ships surrounding the island and moored near the main docks in the bluish water. We descended and had time to stretch out on the beach for some rays, our feet playing in the sand.
Brian called us to return. Back to the ship for cooking class, lunch and mid-day departure to Hanoi. We had first thought about a 3 day trip, but with the rainy forecast we chose just 2 days. The shorter excursion was just fine. We felt like we got the full fun experience with nice air conditioned accommodations and really good food. The longer trip takes a wider course and you can go on fancier ships, but we felt satisfied.
Time to say good bye to Hanoi, we are moving south to the DMZ