A stopover to Australia turned into a hectic, sweaty week in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay to Mai Chau.
I’d like to preface this post by confessing that I’m playing catch up on many of my travel experiences. When I started this blog nearly five years ago, I was embarking on an unforgettable trip to South America. I felt free and inspired, a childlike need for expression fueling my fingertips. I realize now that more than pure expression, I was honing my craft. Writing is a skill that one must practice, and soon my desire to travel began to subvert my motivation to create for the sake of creation. By that, I mean, I soon put my hands to work typing for others, the goal of payment my only concern. With more money came more experiences, more trips around the world. I found this in my drafts and figured, why the heck not? So now, many moons later, I will attempt to pick up where I left off. This is my week in Vietnam.
My Aussie travel buddy Becs and I had stopped in the middle of the Huc Bridge in Hanoi to take a photo of the iconic red structure and the Ngoc Son Temple in the distance, when we were accosted by a fresh-faced young American man who asked if we’d be so kind as to take his photo. We learned that he was traveling alone, that social cues meant little-to-nothing to him, and that he had clearly just discovered hostel life.
“Where are you staying?” he asked as we handed him back his camera.
“Oh, just a nice hotel,” I answered, noncommittal. “It’s called the Tirant,” Becs supplied helpfully.
“A hotel?” he asked, as if he were surprised that we should do such a thing. Then a look passed his face, as if it had dawned on him that we hadn’t yet become aware of the existence of hostels. “Here’s a little tip,” he said, all finger-wagging bravado. “If you want to save a ton of money, you can stay at a hostel. They have them everywhere, and they’re much cheaper than hotels.”
Here’s a tip to my readers. If you’re going to Southeast Asia, you can probably afford to splurge a little. While my preferred type of accommodation is usually hostels, hotels and nice meals come cheap in that part of the world. It’d be rude not to see how the other half vacations.
I probably wouldn’t have bothered if it weren’t for Becs and her travel prowess. She found us a sweet deal with a tour company called Blue Dragon Tours– “See Indochina at its purest!” Debatable tagline, but for $250, we got a two night stay at a centrally-located 3-star hotel (that felt like a 4-star hotel), a two-day-one-night tour of Ha Long Bay, and a transfer service from the airport to the hotel, the hotel to Ha Long Bay, and Ha Long Bay back to Hanoi. Only those who have struggled on packed, smelly, sweaty buses in foreign countries, lugging along their cumbersome backpacks while trying to keep all important belongings safe and sound can know the absolute luxury of being driven somewhere. Decadence is removing the weight of your backpack from your shoulders, reclining in your own seat in a car, and basking in the cold artificial air conditioned breeze that dries the sweat off your brow.
Here is an account of how it went:
As I flew into Hanoi from LA, I felt muggy just looking out of the plane window. From overhead, I could already see the French colonialism in the architecture, the roofs of buildings in dull shades of red and blue. Beyond the thick layer of mist rose what looked like soft, subtle mountains, green and lush. As the pilot prepared us for landing, I noted how pleasantly strange the Vietnamese language sounded to my foreign ears, like vowels repeatedly stopped short.
My driver picked me up at baggage claim, and I was grateful to Becs for setting this up. After a long flight, it was nice not to have to navigate public transit in this, the most culturally shocking place I had been so far. We drove alongside motorcyclists driving the wrong way on the street, past many areas that were in the process of development, cement frames rising amongst the otherwise dull landscape alongside buildings with slated tile roofs, typical of what I expected to find in Asian countries. Everything around me looked as though it had been the recipient of hard rainfall.
My driver and I spoke in halted English. He told me that he was a Christian, and I told him I was raised Jewish. He said he didn’t know what that was, so I explained that I was like Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, from the Bible. I received a blank stare in response. Then he told me that I was very pretty.
When we reached the Old Quarter, I saw my first tourists, my fellow travel comrades. The streets seemed to clean themselves up the deeper we got into the Old Quarter, although, that is not to say that the streets that I walked on were truly clean. Just cleaner than the outskirts, which were heaped in places with wet garbage.
We arrived at my hotel, the Tirant Hotel, a large yellow edifice that blends quaint French colonial architecture with the grander Western influence. The lobby was opulent, the rooms swanky. Atop shiny wooden floors were two twin beds with crisp white sheets and gold trimming. The shower door was lined with a golden metal, and there were a couple of small, sweet bananas and a large bottle of water waiting for me. I showered quickly and ran out the door to explore, my bra stuffed with strange bank notes.
The streets in the Old Quarter overflowed with small shops selling elephant-printed harem pants, flowery porcelain crockery, beaded jewelry, paintings of women with conical hats in rice paddies. Shop owners and their families lay prostrate on the floor of the shops, moving as little as possible to combat the stifling, moist heat. I walked past two women and a man squatting on the curb, cleaning and gutting chickens. They laughed and splashed dirty chicken water at each other. It warmed my heart. The sidewalks were inadequate, more often than not filled with parked motorcycles, so I walked in the streets. Navigating required real attention, as the disorienting cacophony of moped and motorcycle honks took over my senses. That, and the many smells. Raw fish, perfume, something spicy, garbage, all pervaded by the constant whiff of incense sticks on the offerings to Buddha outside every place of business.
If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, the constant beckonings of shopkeeps, restaurant proprietors, and day spa owners should be no stranger to you. Every where you look, you are offered a good price for this, a deal for that. Becs and I spent a chunk of time walking through the streets, enjoying excellent, cheap massages ($10), buying patterned shirts, and just generally eating everything. Some standouts include:
Che: A three-coloured bean dessert drink thing that involves crunchy ice, some jelly-like substance, sweet beans, and a little puddle of sweetened coconut cream on the bottom. I was told not to consume the ice in Hanoi, but it was sooo hot. I survived.
Traditional Banh Mi: Mine included a bit of egg (omelette style), this hybrid French-Vietnamese sandwich is originally made with a smattering of pickled veggies and a rich schmear of pate on a small crusty French baguette.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee: A dark roast coffee sweetened with a shot of sweetened condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee is unique not just for its pairing with tasty canned milk. Ca phe chon has a less bitter taste, and that’s due to the peculiar way the Arabica coffee beans are harvested. In short, civet cats eat the beans, their digestive systems ferment the beans and break down the proteins, and then the beans are harvested from the feces. The result is a rich, less bitter brew, that hypes you up from a pleasant mix of intense caffeination and sugar rush. It’s the shit. Pun intended. Obviously.
The next day we decided to hit up the tourist sights, a task that would prove to be rather daunting in the sweltering heat, as we navigated through smog and moisture so thick, a machete could have cut through it.
First stop was the Ngoc Son Temple, or the ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’. This Buddhist temple rests on a small island on Hoan Kiem Lake, and it was on the iconic red bridge (named the Welcoming of Morning Sunlight Bridge) to the island that we happened upon the aforementioned over-eager American traveler. The temple itself is dedicated to La To, the patron saint of physicians, General Tran Hung Dao, a badass who defeated the Mongol army in the 13th century, and Van Xuong, a scholar. As my first Buddhist temple, it was an experience, albeit a touristy one. I loved the recognizable sloping hip roofs of the temple itself, the gnarly, twisted trees on the island, and the overflowing offerings to the Buddha.
Becs and I walked around the lake and into the city, away from the Old Quarter. Women in pointed hats tended to the bright orange flowers surrounding the lake, and tourists flocked to such statues as one dedicated to Ly Thai To, who was the founder of the Later Ly Dynasty in Vietnam. He reigned from 1009 to 1028, and is most known for relocating the imperial capital to Thang Long, modern day Hanoi.
Next we made our way to Hoa Lo Prison, later known by US troops as Hotel Hanoi, a prison built by French colonialists in 1896 to suppress the Vietnamese resistance. Touring this structure I learned about its history and evolution from a prison for Vietnamese revolutionaries to one for American POIs (like John McCain). I was mainly struck by the patriotic rhetoric, so full of propaganda and one-sided tellings, in many of the captions on the walls. It amused me because it held up a mirror to how our museums might appear to an outsider, how the story changes when it’s told by the opposing side.
On the wall was an ‘Introduction to the Remains of Hoa Lo Prison’:
“The French colonialists changed Hoa Lo from a famous trade village specialized in producing ceramic into a prison that confined and persecuted both the body and the mind of thousands of revolutionary patriotic soldiers. Many leaders of the Government and Vietnamese Communist Party used to be imprisoned here.”
Through a combination of recreated rooms, photography, art, and large-scale models, one could get a sense for the tortuous life of Vietnamese political prisoners at the hands of French colonialists. The rooms dedicated to the history of American pilots who were kept in the prison during the Vietnam War showed a rather different side than we, as Americans, are taught of captivity. If we’re to believe the laughable literature on the walls, it seemed as though the American POIs had a rather lovely vacation that involved playing volleyball outside and enjoying Christmas dinners together.
The rest of the day generally consisted of walking, slowly to conserve energy, through the packed streets and staring at the many offerings of food available on street corners, in curious steaming vats, in make-shift restaurants with child-sized plastic tables and chairs that appeared to begin in someone’s living room and expanded onto the street… See below:
As night fell, we decided to go for some civilized street food, and by that I mean, the contents of our plates were cooked outside on the street, but we sat down to eat at one of those tiny tables rather than my usual method of eating street food, which is to scarf and walk. Becs and I have both traveled enough to know that if the locals are filling up the place, then it’s probably delicious. The restaurant we chose featured a woman surrounded by bowls and buckets of iced shellfish, some of which I had never seen before, others easily identified as oysters, crabs, and prawns. Directly in front of her, as she sat on a plastic chair on the street, was a large silver caldron and a small cook fire with a grill over it. On top of the grill she placed freshly shucked oysters and clams to cook in their shells and spooned some sort of spicy-looking green sauce over the meat as they cooked. We ordered mainly by pointing and then took a seat amidst the natives.
Miracle of all miracles, we did not get any form of food poisoning from the street oysters we consumed that night. Instead, we found a quiet rooftop bar with an empty rooftop pool where we could wind down with a fruity cocktail and soak our aching feet.
Check out Part II of my week in Vietnam, coming soon…maybe…