Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My SE Asia Solo Trip! (Part 2: Vietnam)

From Bangkok I flew into Hanoi, and I have to say that my first impression of Vietnamese people was already great! Even at the BKK airport, I observed that the ladies were all wearing skirts (reminiscent of Barcelona) and the guys were all very talkative and jolly while waiting for our flight. When I got into my hostel in Hanoi, the owner invited me to family-styled dinner the next day, and was extremely helpful with setting me up with a self-guided walking tour map of the city, telling me where the train station was, and recommending a cruise for Halong Bay. The receptionists I had at the hostel were very cheeky (in a good way), and it was a fun first intro to local Vietnamese people.

Some obligatory tourist pictures from Hanoi:

The city of Hanoi has always held my curiosity, because one of my high school friends who had set out traveling/volunteering through SE Asia had decided to stay there for more than a year. I could only describe the city as vibrant and crazy. The sidewalks are treacherous; there are numerous motorbikes haphazardly parked on the sidewalks, and the pavement would be randomly missing entire chunks of tiles and having dirt and rocks sticking out of the ground. I tripped several times walking along while admiring window displays, before I realized that if I didn't start looking down, I could actually hurt myself walking! Sometimes, randomly you would also see motorbikes riding on the sidewalk (god knows why), and they would honk at you because you're in their way. On the sides of the streets, there are many places to eat and drink, and very uniquely, people sit on tiny stools, very close to the ground, when they stop in these street food establishments. During my daytime roaming I thought it didn't look that comfortable, but at night when I headed out with some other travelers from my hostel, it was actually really fun to sit on the little stools on the curb, only inches away from heavy traffic, and drinking their delicious local brew (costing 10000 VND, or 50 cents USD) in front of one of the mini-mart type of stores. It was actually weird to see full-out pubs in Hanoi, because I think those cater to the Western travelers. At the stools places, a typical "table" shared by multiple people is another small stool; only when we went across the street to grab a second drink did we get upgraded to a low plastic table (still low to the ground, but bigger in area).

After a day in Hanoi, I headed off to a two-day cruise in Halong Bay. I feel that I should mention that I went with a very budget cruise called Fantasea, and had an absolutely terrific time.

Beforehand, I had read sosoSO many things online about choosing a Halong Bay cruise from the many, and in the end I just went with my hostel's recommendation. It was for the best, because apparently all the young and single and fun people decided to choose the same cruise (we are all cheap -- cheaper than people traveling with their families, anyway), and together we had a fantastic time aboard. On the first day, we went to a cheesy cave, canoed in the ocean, hiked a bit, swam, and returned to the boat to enjoy the sunset and have yummy dinner.

THE FOOD WAS AMAZING! And the cruise boat rooms had hot showers and real bathrooms; more than I could have hoped for considering it was a budget cruise. That night, we played a fun drinking game called Ring of Fire; since we were all from different countries, it was half in English and half in Danish, and all parts crazy. The next morning, my roommate and I rose up early to do yoga on the deck at sunrise, and it was sooo relaxing! What an amazing experience to be able to see those beautiful islands both at dusk and dawn.

Here, by the way, is a picture representing the sweltering heat of Halong Bay; the "manly" boys from Denmark decided to cave in and buy fans; I had been using a fan which I collected for free in Singapore throughout my trip, and believe me -- in 35 or more degrees of stifling heat (Celsius), you are grateful to have even an ugly tourist fan to use.

After Halong Bay, I took a night train from Hanoi (in the north) to Hoi An (in the middle of the country), that lasted about 14 hours. I was relieved that there were no bed bugs on this train, because I had heard some horror stories from fellow travelers about finding hundreds of bed bugs in the seams of their train mattresses, and I was pretty anxious about this. But, the train I took was great and seemed clean, and there was even a flushable toilet and hot water on board! Once I got to Danang (which is where the train stops), it was a bit of an adventure finding the local bus that would take me to Hoi An. I learned to sign "bus" by drawing a big rectangle and (more importantly) signalling a wide steering wheel. After signing to a few people and writing down "Bus to Hoi An" on a sheet of paper, I managed to find my way to the bus stop (unlike my unlucky Spanish friend, who arrived a day later and was taken for a ride by a motorbike taxi, taken to the middle of nowhere, running into "a mafia guy", and eventually forcing her to pay to go all the way on the motorbike to Hoi An).

I had no idea what to expect in Hoi An when I arrived, but I learned during my short stay there that: It has a nice beach, "the nicest in Vietnam." I went to the beach and thought it was OK. Hoi An has amazing shopping, as I can attest to personally. Westerners flock there to get clothes tailored, apparently, because it has over 600 tailors in town, and some of them (the recommended ones) can make very nice suits for very cheap. I will say that I did not know this going in, but I noticed immediately that each store only has one size for each dress, and if it doesn't fit you perfectly, they offer to make another one to size, for the same price, overnight. A dress runs typically 25 USD, even though you can get it a bit cheaper if you bargain. I bought 3 dresses in Hoi An (I couldn't help it; the shopping was too good). Two of them I am supremely happy with, and one of them not so happy with. What this means is that tailors and shops can differ substantially in quality, and even with multiple fittings prior to pickup, it's still a hit-or-miss when it comes to quality and fit. But, if you can get the right stuff (ie. I had a work dress made, of nice material and design and looks "formal", for 25 USD), it can be very worth it. I also bought some rice-paper paintings and a vintage Vietnamese propaganda poster home.

Hoi An looks something like this, historical, bustling, and quaint:

Speaking of which, in Hoi An I started to learn about the horrible things Americans did during the Vietnam War (besides Agent Orange). In Hoi An I took an amazing bike tour of 3 islands nearby (see pictures below), and because there were only 2 of us on the tour, the tour guide opened up and told us all kinds of things about herself and Vietnam. One of the horrible things I learned is that because American soldiers used to rape Vietnamese women, the old ladies you see today with very black teeth are actually ladies who used very strong chemicals to darken their teeth in order to look unattractive and to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the chemicals stain permanently. Also, in the mountains near Hoi An there were hundreds of land mines, up until 3 years ago when the Vietnamese government finally went in and cleared them all. Up until then, about once a year there would still be innocent deaths from the land mines. In Hoi An, there is a shop just beyond the Japanese covered bridge that sells vintage propaganda posters, and most of them say to kill Americans and to free the country of invaders. The posters were very interesting to see, because they were the other side of the war story, which we didn't learn about in school. I ended up buying a generic Communism propaganda poster that has these huge hands holding a field and machines, and at the bottom it says in Vietnamese: "Labor. Happiness. Abundance."

Hoi An also happened to have a full moon ancestor celebration during my stay there. I bought a candle to release into the canal, and you can see from a distance many floating candles, which matched the beautiful lanterns everywhere. They also lit incense for their ancestors and put them out near the trees and corners of buildings.

During my day-long bike tour to the islands, we passed by a local wedding, visited a noodle-making lady (and her pigs), and rode through ridiculously beautiful rice paddies with water buffaloes and floating bamboo bridges (which had attached toll booths, also made of bamboo!).

We also visited some people who made straw mats, seeing the process of cutting, dying the straws, and finally weaving.

And, the MOST memorably, we visited a lady who weaves circular basket boats, which back during French occupation was a way to evade taxes on boats because they didn't look like boats when the inspectors would come around. Here is me trying to row the basket boat; it is NOT EASY! The old lady made it look mad easy, but you have to row in a C formation in front of the boat, else the boat would just spin in circles instead of moving forward. When I finally finished, the cute old lady was so happy for me. :)

By the way, the basket boat has an advertised capacity of 3 people. But, as it turns out, that probably means 3 small Vietnamese people, and the tour guide said that one time a huge European man had gotten into the boat, and as soon as he sat down, the boat sank so much that it was barely above the water line. As he rowed, water started to come in over the brim, and the boat started to sink halfway through the stream. That's both tragic and funny; never judge yourself by Vietnamese capacity standards, I guess!

All in all, it was a glorious day. We also visited another pearl-inlaying workshop, an ice-making shop, and a fisherman boat-building workshop. It was all very interesting to see how this little community self-sustains in their traditional way of life! And, from that day I made a very lovely friend Tara, whom I hung out with the next morning as well.

My last morning in Hoi An was another early one; I went to check out a Cham temple in the mountains at 5am. We were able to see a gorgeous sunrise en route, and the ruins were empty except for our mini bus. (There are not that many people so eager to wake up so early, I see.) Our tour guide was fantastic -- enthusiastic, funny as hell, and full of knowledge. He kept pointing things out and was genuinely infectious in his joy for the work. He also kept saying, "Same same," which is adorable. (Vietnamese people I guess have this running joke that things are "Same same" when they are in fact totally different. For example, "Guess what my favorite animal is." "Tigers?" "No, hippos. But same same.") It was a very lovely way to wrap up my stay in Hoi An!

After Hoi An, I made a decision to take a night bus to Saigon (aka. Ho Chi Minh City, but Saigon is easier for me to type and say, so I'll stick to that), because I didn't want to press my luck with the bed bugs aboard sleeper trains. Well, these sleeper busses are quite a sight; there are 2 height levels, and 3 rows of beds that recline all the way down. The seats are of plastic cover, so it's less likely to be bed bug-infested, I guess. The ride is quite bumpy, as the busses drive only on local roads (like all Asian long-distance busses I took). Because there are lots of backpackers on these trains, mixed with locals, it has an interesting vibe. As the busses I've taken before, they make pit stops for food and bathroom about every 6 hours, so it's a good idea not to drink too much water if you have a small bladder like me. On the bus, I saw another sunrise, but otherwise it was not very exciting. I think from Hoi An to Saigon was 23 hours, broken up into two legs. (Only I and two other Brits on my bus did both legs consecutively. Most other sane people hopped off at Na Trung or something, for the beach.)

Once in Saigon, I only had 2.5 days. I really wanted to go to the Mekong Delta (a big mistake in hindsight), so I booked a two-day tour to the Mekong, and booked a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. After having come from the north, I was sorely disappointed that the Mekong Delta tour was so touristy -- there were like 50 to 100 tourists at every stop, and every 30 minutes they were asking us to buy stuff. Otherwise, what we saw could have been quite cool. (Visiting a bee far, seeing how coconut candy is made, being rowed in a boat through a jungle canal, and eating tropical fruits.)

The best part was when we visited, on Day 2, a Vietnamese floating market. After having been to Bangkok, I was particularly curious how this one would differ. IT WAS TOTALLY DIFFERENT! The floating market in the Mekong Delta is actually a wholesaler produce market, and they signify what they sell by sticking one of their products on the top of a long pole and hoisting it up. I got to hang out with an awesome elderly Australian lady for the day; she has traveled the world and was setting out on a 5-month journey, mostly solo. We caved into temptations and bought a fresh pineapple to share, and it was delicious right off the cob.

On Day 2, we also visited a noodle making "factory", which is a much larger-scaled operation than the little noodle-maker we had seen on the bike tour.

When we walked through a local market, we were keeping our eyes peeled for opportunities to try eating a snake, but when we did eventually find them, there didn't seem to be a way to cook them on the spot! When Geoff heard this story, he said that 10 years ago when he took a bus from Laos to China, there was a man next to him carrying a bucket of these water snakes for the entire trip. Amazing.

And, on my last day in Saigon, I had a most excellent visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, during which I asked the tour guide lots of questions about the Vietnam War, and learned that it is going to take Vietnam over 100 years to clean up Agent Orange, if each year it spends 100 million USD in that effort. It's just so sad. We went to a handicapped handicraft workshop, similar to many others around the country, where the government trains disabled people (many of them are results of Agent Orange) to do one step in creating a handicraft that can be sold. To see how the Vietnamese government is trying to help, to know that the American government is responsible for some of these people's physical conditions, and to get an opportunity to buy their handicraft, was something I didn't anticipate going into the Cu Chi tour. I know that history is always told on two sides, but I feel strongly that it is the duty of every American to go at some point to Vietnam, and to ask the difficult questions of what happened.

Here are some pictures of the tunnel, the food the Viet Congs used to eat, and the weapons on showcase there from the American side. At the Cu Chi Tunnels you can also see old booby traps that were placed inside the tunnels so that American soldiers who tried to get in would get trapped. Back then, Americans had the AK47s and machine guns and bombs, and the Vietnamese only had their brains and bamboo-made weapons. Considering this, they did amazingly well in the war! You cannot help but admire their cleverness and resourcefulness when you see the remains of what they made.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tour guide told me that the Vietnamese version of the story is that Americans went in and started the war, due to fears of the domino effect of communism. They say that there was never a full division of North/South Vietnam, much less a civil war, until the Americans went in to set up a puppet government in the South. Even in the South, Viet Congs (communist sympathizers) were about 40% of the population, and the Americans bombed their villages (for example, the area near the Cu Chi Tunnels) daily, and guillotines were used to publicly execute some people who were suspected of being Viet Congs. Living in Germany and thinking about how the U.S. had handled the Vietnamese communist politics very differently from how it had handled the German communist politics during the Cold War, I feel the palpable differences between where those countries are today. I feel strongly that as Americans we are responsible for going to Vietnam to get a local version of the story (whether or not you think it is "true"), because they still refer to us as "The Enemy" when they talk about the past, and it is amazing that they say there is forgiveness and "now everything is OK...", because if someone came over to the U.S. and dumped toxic chemicals all over our land, I can tell you that in 30 years things will not be OK with that country. So, if you get a chance, go to Vietnam, because when they talk about how they felt about us 20 or 30 years ago, you can easily imagine that that might be how Iraqis and Afghans feel about us today.

In the end, I decided that I really loved the Vietnamese people. Everyone I met was so absolutely great and genuine, and they are obviously a very industrious people. One of the tour guides told me that Vietnamese people work 16 hours a day, 360 days a year. I don't doubt it, as you can see shops still open till about midnight, and if you get up early in the morning, they're already up and about. If you want to go to Vietnam, go now before their country gets overrun and spoiled by tourists. I came home full of stories about Vietnam, and I told Geoff that together we have to go back at some point to this absolutely gorgeous country!!!

Next: On to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore!


  1. I devoured every word and every picture in this post, Mimi. I'm so jealous because I've never travelled north of Nha Trang. My dream is to return and continue northward and up to Hanoi. I was already brimming with tears as I read your post, then when I got to the "circular basket boats," I just sobbed. It was this "boat" that my brother had tossed me into from cliff's edge in the pitch-dark night. I made it!!!
    I can't thank you enough for writing this post. I love you, Mimi.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story! You should go back to Vietnam for sure to visit. What an amazing place!!! xoxx

  3. hey. awesome post. i just came back from da nang/hoi an. i found your blog because i was desperately trying to find the contact info for the store that sold the old propaganda posters. I bought a couple that i loved only to have left them behind. If you still have the tube that the posters were packaged in their business card should be on it with an email address. i'd greatly appreciate a way to get into contact with them so i could replace the posters i lost.


  4. Hey! I do! You're very lucky that we haven't yet gotten rid of the packaging...

    The store is called Old Propaganda Posters
    Tel: 0510.3917975 - 0989084449
    Address: 40 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Hoi An

  5. awesome. thanks a lot. im still trying my best to track down the ones i've lost, but im not holding my breath.