Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Viet Nam

I was really excited to be going to Viet Nam.  The way a lot of us thought of it was to think that someday, our children may find themselves traveling to Iraq.  Viet Nam was before my lifetime, but I've learned plenty about it through school and the infinite amount of movies on the subject.  So we started pulling into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at around 4am, and I was sure to be up to the top deck at 5am to watch the sun rise up and see us making our way up the river to the port.   It was about a three hour journey to get up there, and it was beautiful to see the sun come up over the dense tree line.  There was a lot of little fishing boats out on the water, most of the fishermen just waking up and getting to the boats.  The weather was pretty humid and warm, especially for that early in the morning. 
Gradually as we got closer to the city we could see skyscrapers popping up.  What I thought was the downtown area was quickly overshadowed by what emerged from the haze a little further down river, a downtown area with one huge, very cool looking building.  It was built in the last year, and it's the tallest building in Viet Nam, but will only hold that title for another year.  Viet Nam's economy is growing, and they have a crazy construction boom going on right now.  The skyline was dotted with construction cranes everywhere.  We docked basically right in the downtown area, and started getting right to set off into a communist country! (Well hybrid communism, a market economy doesn't really follow communist ideals).  Viet Nam turned out to be one of the more educational countries that I have visited so far.  And it's full of cheap knock off brands!
Day 1
Nothing really scheduled for this day, so it turned into being a pretty nice relaxing day.  The had a bus taking us from the port entrance of the city up to the Rex Hotel, which is a little more central to the city, but the port itself was actually pretty central.  So we took the bus up there and started wandering around.  We stumbled upon a place with some cheap DVDs, and by cheap I mean 80 cents for movies that are still in theaters!  Needless to say we loaded up.  We were thinking about getting a massage or something, so as soon as a promoter for one a spa came up, we jumped on the opportunity.  Except me and the other guys decided a massage was just too personal, and I was afraid I'd be laughing or something during the entire thing.  So I'm not ashamed to say we ended up getting pedicures and manicures, and a nice foot scrubbing.  It tickled.  And the lady I had doing my foot scrubbing put on plastic gloves?  What a jerk.  But I guess I have been walking and running for 23 years without any care to what the looked like.  I did feel pretty clean afterwards, and apparently all the for under 10 bucks and an hours worth of work is quite the deal, so I was happy.
After this we were all pretty hungry so the group headed off to find pho, which is kind of like Viet Nam's national dish.  We went to a cafe at the top of a little hotel, and I had pho with spring rolls as an appetizer.  The pho is basically a beef noodle soup, and it's delicious.  A chain we ate at later in the week is called Pho 24, it started in Ho Chi Minh City but they're actually popping up in the US now, so I strongly recommend it if you have one nearby.. I think my whole meal here was 5 bucks, including beers as well.  No complaints here!
After this we headed over to the Ben Thanh Market nearby where we spend most of the afternoon looking at all the stuff inside.  I wasn't really in a shopping mood (I never am) and was amazed I spent as much time in there as I did.  They had everything you could imagine, all knock-offs.  Rolex watches for 10 bucks, Lacoste polos for 4, all the t-shirts were 1 or 2 bucks.  Quite the place for your budget to go far!
We went back to the ship to meet up with some more people and a nice sized group of about 12 of us had reservations that night at the Rex Hotel's rooftop bar and restaurant.  The hotel is pretty historic, and this restaurant was historic since this is where the 5'O Clock Follies were everyday at 5.  All the Western reporters gathered here and received updates on the war and listened to any announcements from the command in Viet Nam.  It's a nice place today, and they had some guy singing Frank Sinatra songs and similar things, so it had a Copacabana feeling to it (I think, I'm not really sure what that is).  It was a fun start to a fun night, as Ho Chi Minh City had some great options for a really fun night (thanks to Michael and Susan for dinner!).
Day 2
I never sleep anymore, so it should be no surprise that this was a 3:30 in the morning start for my last SAS trip (crazy to think about).  I was headed to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, so we had an early flight out of Ho Chi Minh City up to Hanoi.  We landed in Hanoi around 8am, and I was officially in northern Viet Nam, exciting.  Our tour guide was great,  his nickname was Mango, and he knew a lot about what we were interested in hearing and was willing to talk about anything.  I should mention hear that despite the past, Viet Nam is a very welcoming country.  Never did I feel any animosity towards Americans from the people.  Two/thirds of the population of Viet Nam as born after the fall of Saigon, but even the older people were nothing but welcoming and helpful.  They're excited to have Americans visiting Viet Nam.  You also really don't feel too much like you're in a communist country.  Capitalism is everywhere around, and the cities were quite lively. 
It took about an hour to get into the city of Hanoi from the airport, but outside the city you could see all the large Canon factories and all these other name brands that are made right here in Viet Nam.  They actually had stores all over the cities catering to tourists called "Made in Viet Nam".  Just like Ho Chi Minh city, Hanoi is going through a huge construction boom and everything seems new or has construction cranes hovering around everything.  When we got into our city the first stop was to the Temple of Literature, one of the first Universities in Viet Nam.  We had the chance to move around and explore it, there's an area that has graduates named etched into stone (it started about 1,000 years ago).  In one area there was a group playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and it was actually a great sound, and the instruments were really unique and seemed pretty difficult to play.  Hopefully I can get a video up of it sometime soon.
Our next stop was very interesting, the famed Hanoi Hilton.  Years ago the site was considered excellent for an office tower, so the prison was demolished except for a small section of it which was turned into a museum.  This section included walls and cells, and the original gate to the prison, which you can see if you ever saw the video of John McCain and the other pilots leaving the prison after they were freed.  
It was really cool to actually be in this prison and looking at the cells, and it was really different to get the anti-American view of it.  Think want you want, the fact is that to the Vietnamese, they slaid the goliath and won the "American War".  The prison was originally constructed by the French, so the first part of the prison was all about the Vietnamese revolution fighters who were tortured and killed here, and about some of the successful escapes they made out of the prison up until the end of French colonialization in Viet Nam.
The second part was very interesting, it was dedicated to the role the prison played in the American War.  Our guide explained before we went in that they would highlight how well the Americans were treated by the Vietnamese in the prison, which was obviously not quite the case.  Inside they had John McCain's flight suit from when he was shot down over Hanoi, along with a lot of other prisoner's possessions on display which was weird to be looking at it.  They had a movie playing in the same room that showed the affects of the American's bombing Hanoi, and the destruction it left behind.  The Vietnamese were always portrayed as fighting for their freedom and their country, and it wasn't too hard to see why.  They had just gained freedom after 100 years of French colonial rule, did we really think they'd be happy to see another country jumping in their country?  The fun fact is that Ho Chi Minh (Vietnamese revolution leader) pleaded with the U.S. to help them in their struggle for independence, since he and many Vietnamese people were inspired by our struggle for independence from the British.  But the US was silent and would never jeopardize it's friendship with France, so Ho Chi Minh turned to the Soviet Union for help.  Quite understandable if you ask me.  
But anyways, the prison was very interesting.  After the prison we headed to a nice lunch that had a lot of different Vietnamese foods on the menu and pretty delicious, as always is the case with SAS trips.  After lunch we headed out to the bus for our 3 hour drive out to Ha Long Bay, where we were staying the night.  Along the drive we were out in the countryside where the rice fields were and our guide explained a lot of about what was happening in the fields.  It was awesome to see the workers out there with the rice hats on it, just the exact image you have when you think of rural Viet Nam.  The towns were cool to see, since land isn't too cheap, people build smaller, narrow homes that go up for 5 or 6 stories.  I can say that the poverty in Viet Nam was not too prevalent, at least compared to many of the other countries I've been to.  In my entire time in country, only one time did someone come up to me and ask for money.  And I do not think this has anything to do with the government keeping the poor away from tourist areas or anything like that, people in Viet Nam are pretty free to move about, and national debates abound on various topics and even politics (just don't publicly criticize the government ha).  Halfway through the drive to Ha Long we stopped at a government run art shop for disabled people.  They had some beautiful artwork there that was wayyyyyy overpriced, but it was fun to look at it.
We finally got into the city of Ha Long and checked into our hotel, the Grand Ha Long Bay Hotel.  It was nice and our room had a great view of the ocean and the bay, except that it was very foggy out.  So we got situated and everyone headed down to the night market which was nearby (it was already getting dark out) and went to put our feet into the ocean and just hang out for awhile.  We then gathered up and went to dinner at a pretty good restaurant that had a seafood specialty ( we were right next to the ocean).  The fish and the shrimp all still had their heads on!  But it was all very good, especially the steamed vegetables.  Some of is went out that night and had a pretty good time, but we had an early morning boat ride the next day.
Day 3
We had a four hour boat ride on a Vietnamese junk boat out into Ha Long Bay that day.  It was a little hazy out but that made in all the more interesting to see the hills come out of nowhere.  To get an idea of what Ha Long Bay was like, just google search "Ha Long Bay" and click on images to see some pictures.  Huge rock mountain coming straight up and out of the water, many covered with trees and just looking stunning.  These are everywhere, so from the water sometimes you'd have two or three or even four lines of hills behind each other, creating a pretty stunning scene.  We moved around here for the morning and just enjoyed the views.
They had divided the the group all trip between into two buses and now into two different junk boats.  One group was the students who had parents come to Viet Nam on Semester at Sea's parent trip, the other was the group of students on the trip who didn't have parents (we called ourselves orphans).  The strange thing was when our junk boat pulled up next to the other junk boat to swim in the water, we found that the students only junk boat was full of quiet people sipping juice and sodas, whereas the parent and student junk boat was full of people drinking beer and wine and having an all around good time, which was pretty funny.  But oh well, things changed fast, most of them had been in bed at 10 the night before anyways, which is lame ha.  But the water was perfect and they let us jump off the second deck of the junk boats which was fun.  Coming close enough to the island itself I was able to touch the bottom, which was full of mud that you'd kind of sink into up to your ankles, so it was weird, but hey, free mud bath right?
After the great time out on the junk boats, we headed back to the buses for our drive back to Vietnam.  A little disappointed as I could have spent the whole day out on Ha Long Bay, I really wished I had more time to kayak or swim into the grottoes that are everywhere out in the bay. 
We arrived at our hotel in the middle of Hanoi, and I had some time to go out and explore the city.  The city still has much of it's French colonial feel to it, and all the streets are lined with trees that give it quite a charm.  I just walked through the city, saying hi to a lot of people and walking through a park.  At one point I passed a secondary school that was just ending its day, so I kind of wandered into the main grounds of it, not getting stopped by anyone as I though I might.  A couple of the students came up and talked to me for a little bit so it was pretty fun, but I don't think tourists are as uncommon in Viet Nam as the are in other ports we've been to, since they tired of me pretty quickly (or, rather, they hopefully were just really anxious to leave school).
This is a good point to mention how rediculously crazy the traffic is in Vietnam.  In the diplomatic briefing before we were allowed to leave the ship, the diplomat briefing us told us the biggest danger in Viet Nam was traffic accidents, especially if you're a pedistrian.  He said while he was in the Foreign Service school in D.C., the video that was playing in the background while they were briefed on crazy traffic around the world was from Viet Nam, and after I saw it person, I realized that this was just beyond crazy.  Laws are merely suggestions, and crossing the street happens where ever.  The advice given by everyone:  Walk at slow yet deliberate pace into the street, cross without hesitating, and allow the traffic to move around you.  It was so fun!  About 90% of the traffic was motorcycles or scooters, so this made it easier, but if you ever looked at the traffic you'd think for sure you were about to be hit by one.  In Hanoi, there was never a gap in the traffic.  I had a lot of fun crossing those streets all the time, though not everyone felt the same about it.
We headed out for dinner that night at a very nice restaurant, which had more great food and some seafood.  I wish I was writing down what I was eating more so I'd remember!!! Oh well, that's what texting everyone after the voyage will be for ha.  After dinner we headed to see a water puppet show, something farmers in the rice paddies invented along time ago.  Basically its a puppet show, and the puppets appear to float on the water, under the water is the sticks and strings that control the puppets.  I was a little scared that the puppets would give me nightmares, but luckily that hasn't happened yet.  The music was nice, almost too nice as it started make me very sleepy, and the show was interesting.  Can't say I'll be in line for the next one, but a little culture never hurt anyone.  After the show we had a fun night out in the city, including a stop at the Funky Monkey and the Pub, that ended with me buying a shirt telling people to keep their hands on there dongs (dongs is the Vietnamese currency to avoid any confusion there).
Day 4
Last day in Hanoi, we had a busy morning schedule but then a three hour break in the afternoon to explore the city.  I actually received my only feeling of being in a communist country that morning.
We headed up to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is where his body is on display.  We went through some heavy security, and they take in groups of probably about 40-50 at a time.  The mausoleum sits on Ba Dinh Square, which is where the military parades happen.  Think of the images you always see of North Korea's military parades, and this was what it looked like, with the mausoleum taking center stage.  We walked in a line, two abreast, through the square with military guards escorting us, doing the crazy military walk where they kick there legs out and swing their arms in unison.  No talking, hands out of pockets and rested on your side, no shorts, basically nothing disrespectful, and they take your cameras before you can go in.  You never stop moving, you walk right in, up the steps, and into the room where his body is eerily preserved despite being dead for over 30 years (maybe its 10 percent him, 90 percent wax by now?).  The mausoleum actually closes every year for 3 months for his body to be sent abroad and fixed up, and his crystal coffin has gas pumped in regularly to preserve him.  In the room is a bunch of guards and a huge marble wall, which has a marble version of the flag of Viet Nam and then another flag with the hammer and sickle, the classic symbol of communism.  You walk straight out and its all over!   
So right next to the Mausoleum is many of Viet Nam's governmental buildings that administer the national government.  We walked by the Presidential Palace, where the President works, but of course doesn't live, for he lives in a common house like everyone else (oh sure).  Nearby this we walked to Ho Chi Minh's two homes where he lived while he was President.  The first was a small and humble french home, but at the urging of Stalin he moved later to a house across from the pond where they constructed a traditional Vietnamese house for him, called the house on stilts.  The bottom floor is just an open meeting area where he conducted meetings during the American War with the top level advisors and such, completely open to elements.  Up stairs is a study room, and next to that a bedroom.  No kitchen or toilets in the house...our guide explained that the Soviet Union and Viet Nam's communist party wanted to uphold the image that Ho Chi Minh was a god, and therefore a God does not eat or need a bathroom.  So he had to walk to his old house anytime he needed these.  Nearby was a small bedroom nestled into an artificial hill where Ho Chi Minh slept if there was threats of possible air raids by the U.S.  This room led to a secret bunker where he could quickly escape to if the bombing started.  Mango, our guide, told us how the bunkers are still not open to the public, but back when they were built the men who constructed them were all invited to a big celebration party after the construction of the bunkers.  Guess what?  None of them ever went home, and none were ever seen after that party again.  Woa communism!
Mango was five when the war finally started, and he told us here about his only memory of the war.  He lived outside of Hanoi with his family in a suburb, and he remembers all the children of the village being sent away to live in the mountains away from the city.  I believe he was up there for two months while the heaviest bombing from the U.S. basically destroyed all of Hanoi, civilian or non-civilian (huge propoganda material for all the war museums in Viet Nam these days).  He remembers driving back home to his village and about every 30 yards or so another giant crater from a bomb, scattered everywhere.  It's amazing how much of Hanoi is rebuilt today.
After Ho Chi Minh's homes and such, we walked right up to the One Pillar Pagoda, which (surprise!) is a pagoda built on top of one pillar.  It was kind of cool, you could walk up and see the shrine to Buddha (I think it was Buddha after all).  We then went out to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a huge lake nestled in the middle of Hanoi.  Right next to this lake is Truc Bach lake, which has a memorial commeorating the shooting down of a US plane into the lake in 1967, and on the stone you see that John McCain was one of the airmen.  Back to the big lack, a predestrian bridge takes you a little ways out to a little island that has a tall Buddhist pagoda and temple located on it.  It was actually really pretty, and I'm guessing McCain could of seen it and at first wondered if this really was the communist country he thought it was (I'm sure he's expectations were fulfilled shorty after).  We spend a little time there then headed back to the water puppet theater which is on the edge of the old city of Hanoi, which is really a French inspired area, with narrow streets full of trees and just a lot of charm. 
For lunch a smaller group of us went to the restaurant Cha Ca Long Va.  This restaurant is so famous that the street is named after the restaurant, NOT the othe way around.  It is a very local place, and has an old rustic field to it, and it's been serving it's one dish for over five generations, fried fish in grease, poured over rice noodles, and a little bit of vegetables to season.  SO GOOD.  Second best meal I've had on the trip, after chicken tangiers in Morocco.  Don't believe me?  Anthony Bourdain (Travel Channel's No Reservations) listed it at as one of his top 1,000 places to eat before you die, so you know it was legit.  Very local food, it was amazing!  We spent a little more time walking around the area, talking to some people, and just enjoying the older feeling of that area of Hanoi.
We headed back to the airport to Ho Chi Minh City shortly after that, concluding a really fun trip that showed me two different sides of Viet Nam.  The south is a little less conservative, and the north definitely clings to it's communist ideologies.  Even residents of Ho Chi Minh City like to still call it Saigon, and our tour guide said that was kind of homage to it's past resistance. 
Day 5
The last day in Viet Nam was just a day to kind of relax and get some lasts sights in.  I started the day early again, and went for breakfast, a western style breakfast that was desperately needed (thanks again Michael and Susan!).  Picked up some gifts throughout the city, and ate lunch at Pho 24.
I also took a couple of rides on moped instead of using the shuttle bus or a taxi, it was awesome.  One dollar gets you anywhere in 15-20 minutes.  Zooming around through the traffic and pedestrians, drivers being crazy, it was hilarious if not a white knuckle ride.  It really wasn't that bad, but everyone likes to exagerrate right?
I also made a stop to the War Remnants Museum, dedicated to the Vietnam (American) War.  Very anti-American, and it did highlight many of the atrocities done by Americans, including the devastating effects on children of Agent Orange victims, and some of the rogue attacks carried on civilians by Americans.  Its crazy how terminology used can change the image of something, such us Americans rounding up civilians for interrogation camps and concentration camps.  It was eery to see all of this presented, and I actually learned a lot.  Main thing I learned?  War is the stupidest thing humans do, and I don't think I'll ever support another war in my life unless under extreme situations.

I really enjoyed my time in Viet Nam, and like I said originally, I learned a lot.  I had some great nights out, and saw some pretty interesting things.  
Tomorrow I'll be pulling into what I think is going to be our most beautiful port yet, Hong Kong.  We dock in the middle of it all, and I'm very excited to get to the top of the hills and see the views, VERY EXCITED.  I'm just excited to be getting off this ship again.  I'll be staying the first night in Hong Kong, then going on three day trek to Beijing, where I'll be sleeping on the Great Wall of China!!! Who'd of ever thought?  After that I'll be heading to catch the ship in Shanghai and then off to Japan!  Japan I'll be spending a day in Hiroshima, two nights in Kyoto, and two nights in Tokyo.  Should be an amazing end  with amazing friends to an amazing voyage.  Wish me luck!! (Especially since night time temps will dip into 30 degrees on the wall!)
Also, almost less than one month until debarking in San Diego.  :(  I already have nightmares....